Q: My mother died in 1987. The house was in her name, and in her will she left the house to me. We took the will and the deed to the attorney to have everything transferred into my name.
The attorney only worked part-time and was (we found out later) a drunk. He said he gave the items to his junior partner to take care of. Well, as it turns out, the attorney was caught in somebody else’s wife’s bed, and was shot to death.
The junior partner could never find the will or deed for my mother’s property. I’m wondering what to do about the house. I want to keep it and it is still in my mother’s name. Up until five years ago, I lived in the house as my primary residence.
At the end of 2003, I was in a serious accident which put me out of commission for about three years. Since 2006, I have been trying to re-establish control over my financial life. The house now needs some heavy repairs. I would like to get a loan to get the house fixed and move back in.
Do I need the house in my name to get a loan? Should I even worry about getting the deed in my name? And how do I go about this, since both the will and the deed have been lost and never found? What should I do?
A: I’m sorry for your troubles. When the attorney got into so much trouble (yikes!) you should have immediately followed up by hiring another attorney, and filing a complaint with the attorney’s office and possibly with the state attorney registration board.
It has been many years since this happened, and records often get lost. Your letter demonstrates the importance of knowing where your papers are, and making sure there are copies that can be easily found. In the case of your mother’s will, it would have been helpful to have made a copy and put it in your safe deposit box or in a safe at home before you turned it over to the attorney.
You might have also made copies of any other important papers, including insurance policies, stock certificates, deeds or anything else you wouldn’t want to lose. In today’s digital world, there is a temptation to store electronic copies on your hard drive or even on a disk. But the information on hard drives can disappear in an instant and disks can be corrupted. So if you choose to store information this way, it’s also a good idea to make sure someone else has an electronic copy of the files plus you should have a hard copy that you keep in a safe place.
Please find a qualified real estate or estate attorney who can help put this right. If you cannot find a copy of your mother’s will, you may need to have your local probate court sort out this matter. But you need to understand that if your mother is deemed to have died intestate (without a valid will), the state law will determine who receives her assets. In this case, your sister (or some other relative) may be given a share of the property.
If you and your sister are the only heirs to your mother’s estate and you and she agree that you should get ownership of the property, you may end up in the same place as if you had the will. You and your sister will need to work together to have the title of the property transferred.
If you don’t need to go through probate court in your state, you may be able to transfer title from your mother’s estate into your name by following some guidelines set up for small estates by title companies in your state. Some title companies will undertake the risk — for a fee — to insure that a deed from all of the living descendants of a person can transfer the title of that home to the person they may choose.
There are costs involved in going the probate route or working with a title company to assist you. But you probably won’t be able to get a lender to give you a loan while the property is in your mother’s name.
Your best bet is to still try to find the original will. If not the original, then see if you can find a copy. Then work with an estate attorney to determine what your next course of action should be.
March 5, 2009