Q: My mom lives in a two-flat her father (my grandfather) bought in the 1930s. My grandfather passed away in 1956, and he died without having written a will.
My mom has 3 siblings, and has lived at this two-flat all of her life. After my grandfather died, my mom and dad continued to pay the taxes, kept up the house, and maintained the grounds. My aunt and uncles all moved out of the house after they married and they each have their own homes.
My mom always felt that when the building is sold, it would be most fair to divide the proceeds in four, since my grandfather left no will. At that time, we both felt that it was the right thing to do. However, we’re having second thoughts.
Since my mom lived in the building all those years as her residence, and maintained the property with no help from anyone else, shouldn’t she be entitled to more than just a quarter of the proceeds when it is sold?
This may sound silly, but is there any law that would give legal ownership to someone who has lived on the property and maintained it for a long period of time?
A: Yes, there is such a law. It’s called “adverse possession.” That means you acquire property by openly using a home, claiming it as your own and paying all of the expenses, including the taxes, for a certain period of time. The time you must occupy the property ranges from 7 to 21 years, depending on the state.
Given how long your mother has lived in this property and paid all of the expenses, it’s possible that she could claim to own the entire property at this point.
On the other hand, if she has over time claimed not to own the property as her own, or made statements that her siblings own a part of the home, she might not be able to claim the right of ownership to the whole property.
If she doesn’t already own the entire property, when she sells, the other 3 owners will claim their right to their share of the property. But your mom should rightfully request to be repaid for all of the expenses she incurred in maintaining the home.
The numbers can get complicated. Your mother got the right to live in the home free of rent, but paid all the expenses and did all the maintenance. So to some degree, she is owed for all improvements and capital expenses that she has made to the home over the years. If she sells the home and reimburses herself for those expenses, then the siblings can share in the money that is left over.
It’s possible that once your mother presents her siblings with a bill for the expenses of the property, they will sign over their share to her. Please talk to a real estate attorney for details.