A Tale of Two Homes: When Dying Without a Will Goes Wrong

David & Gladys Wright House. Phoenix, AZ.

“The Home should be the treasure chest of living.”

Although the home portrayed above was designed by legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the quote is by equally legendary Swiss architect Le Corbusier. It signifies the important role the home plays in our society. Relating the home to a treasure chest signals that it protects what we value most, meaning we should take great care in protecting the treasure chest itself- the home.

Not only do our homes contain our valued property, but they provide an address necessary for employment, cultivate an environment for growing a family, and significantly, homes create wealth that we can pass to the next generation. However, according to a recent Gallup poll, the majority of Americans do not have a will in place to determine how to handle their estate after death. If our homes are truly treasure chests, why would we ever leave them behind with no instruction to protect and provide for the families we  love?

While the answers vary, the consequences can be dire. Additionally, even with a will in place, if not drafted by an attorney who can foresee potential trouble down the road and minimize or even avoid these issues, unnecessary complications can arise, costing more time, effort, and in some cases, valuable property, including homes. To illustrate the point, rather than cite statistics or create hypothetical situations, I will describe two actual examples of what can occur to the family home if the homeowner dies without a will. Hint: these are real life examples that happened in my own family.

First, the “good.”

My father passed away four years ago. While he was a man who took care of his home and family, he did not leave behind a will, despite owning two homes. One home described him as the owner, a married man, which meant it automatically passed to my mother as his wife. However, that property was really just a house.  Our true home was the property we occupied, which I had lived in for over 25 years. Although my father “owned” the home, paying off the mortgage from his parents who lived there previously, the title was never transferred and remained in my grandmother’s name, meaning each of her four children had a 1/4 interest in the home. While her estate was probated in court at her death, it was not handled by an attorney, who could have solved the issue.  This meant that at my father’s death, instead of inheriting our home outright, my mother received a 1/4 interest in the home with my father’s siblings. Fortunately, each of them signed over their interest to my mother, who now owns the home outright and continues to occupy it as she had for decades. This was the good news. Other families may not have signed over their interests so easily, if at all, especially since we lived in a 3000 square foot home in a historic neighborhood. Unfortunately, family quarrels are common after a death, so having an estate plan in place to instruct what happens next is critical to avoid such potential conflicts.

Now, the “bad.”

I had an aunt who passed away over ten years ago. She also died without a will, and left behind a minor child and a home. Her child, my cousin, was well taken care of, as another aunt won guardianship, but what about the home? Unfortunately, no case was ever opened to probate my aunt’s estate, meaning no action was ever taken on the home. Years later, we discovered the city had somehow reclaimed ownership of the home, and just a few years ago, the home was demolished. Where childhood memories once existed now stands an empty lot. Worst of all, my cousin, who is now married with a child, just purchased a new home last year, their first home. Had proper action been taken, or more easily, had my aunt left behind a will, her minor child would have already had a home in which to raise a family, instead of absorbing mortgage debt years later.

 

These are just two possibilities of what can happen when failing to leave behind a will or other estate plan, as well as the perils of planning without an attorney. While there are a multitude of online legal service providers that sell do it yourself estate planning products, these programs are not real life people with knowledge of the entire process and can draft to avoid foreseeable conflicts. Further, in weighing costs, spending more for an attorney now can save money down the line, as common mistakes can end up costing more to correct.

In closing, consider the following quote: “Home is the most popular, and will be the most enduring of all earthly establishments” (Channing Pollock).  Do not leave your home up to chance. Instead, with the help of an attorney, create an estate plan to ensure that your home will endure throughout your family from generation to generation.

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