Q: My father died and left the house he lived in to his wife, my stepmother. I have been paying the mortgage, insurance, home owner’s association dues and taxes for the past 10 years on this property because he couldn’t afford it.
My father told me the house would be mine and that he had life insurance to pay it off if anything happened to him. My stepmother now says that she would sign the house over to me if I helped her with his tax debt, but I am swimming in debt quicksand myself.
I live in another state, so what are my rights and what can I do to not lose the home I grew up in? Any help would be appreciated.
A: Let’s start with the issue of the “gift” of the home. According to your letter, the home was in your father’s name and he promised it to you. However, when he died, he must have had a will that gave title to the home to his wife or perhaps the house was held in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship, and she automatically inherited his share of the property when he died.
When it comes to real estate, a gift of an interest in real estate should have been in writing. He could have transferred all or part of the home to you some time in the past or could have done it over time. Each transfer of an interest in the home must have been done by a deed that would have been recorded.
Your father could have also given you the home by designating the home to you in his will. If your father did not take either of these steps to get you title to the home, you might be out of luck.
You can imagine disputes between siblings with one sibling claiming after the death of their parents that they had been promised one thing or another. For this specific reason, the rules are rather strict about having written documentation to evidence the intent of a parent or any person.
The document usually used to convey interests upon death is a will. But parents can take care of their estate planning by other means while they are alive. You should make sure there are no other documents that your father had that indicate that the home had been placed in a trust for your benefit or otherwise. Even if you find some of this other documentation, you may have trouble claiming title. In some cases, that documentation must be filed or recorded at the time of the gift.
You may want to talk to an estate attorney to see what, if any, options you have. If you have documentation that proves that you were going to get the title to the home as a result of your 10 years of paying the expenses on the home, your state’s laws may have some protections for you. Or, at least you might have a chance of claiming money from the estate for the money you spent over the years on the home.
It’s interesting that your father’s wife wants help in settling your father’s debts. Some debts die when a person dies without assets. If your father had life insurance, that life insurance goes directly to the person designated to receive the money. If your father only had the home and the home was in his name and his wife’s name, the home might have transferred to his wife automatically at the time of his death. If that’s the case and there are no other assets that he had, there may not be any money to be used to pay creditors. His wife may want to pay off those creditors, but there may not be a legal obligation on her part to pay off his debts unless she too is on the hook for those debts.
You’ll have to get more information to know if you even have a right to claim an interest in the home, such as if there are other debts that must be settled by law, who was designated beneficiary of the insurance policy he carried (if indeed he had one at all), what were the terms of his will and who held title to the home at the time of his death.
Without this information, you won’t be able to make a proper decision as to what course of action you should take.
Finally, you can talk to the attorney about getting repaid for the money you spent over the years on the house. If you have documentation that says that you might be entitled to the home and now you don’t get the home, perhaps, you have an argument that your financial assistance over the years should be repaid to you in some other form.
Again, you should speak to an estate attorney immediately to see if you have any legitimate rights to the property or have the right to obtain money back for the many years you paid for the upkeep and taxes on the home.