Where is the deed to my house? How to prove you own your home.

Q: My husband died a few years ago and had a life insurance policy. When I got the proceeds from the policy, I was able to pay off our home mortgage. I never received the original deed from the mortgage holder and querying the lender is getting me nowhere. I’m not sure what to do to protect myself against scammers.

Where is the deed to my house? How do I find it? When I search online, I keep getting websites that want me to pay for protection. And, the lawyer that drew up the refinance passed away before my late husband did. Is there somewhere I can get a copy of my deed?

No deed doesn’t mean you don’t own the house

A: First, please accept our condolences on your loss. One of the reasons we recommend that both spouses or partners keep a hand in managing family money is to avoid painful quests like this one.

But while your search for protection hasn’t been fruitful so far, the good news is you likely don’t have to worry about the ownership of the property. 

Married couples typically own their home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenancy by the entirety 

Typically, married couples own all property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. It doesn’t matter if it’s a primary home, second home or vacation home.

Whether you and your spouse owned the property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenancy by the entirety, you became the sole owner of the home upon your husband’s passing. You wouldn’t need to do anything to the title to the property for you to become the sole owner of the home. It happens automatically because of the way you chose to hold title.

But the deed to your home wouldn’t change 

When you purchased the home, the settlement agent or seller’s attorney would have prepared the deed. That deed conveyed the seller’s ownership in the home to you and your husband. That document stays in place and doesn’t change over time, even with your husband’s death.

If you and your husband owned the home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, you automatically and legally became the sole owner of the home upon your husband’s death. You don’t need to do anything more at this time to prove ownership.

You don’t need a deed to your house to prove ownership

When you decide to sell the home, you can show a copy of the death certificate to the settlement agent or title company. This will prove that you became the sole owner of the home.

If you want to check, look online at your local Recorder of Deeds office. If you look up the property, you should see that your name and your husband’s name are still on the title to the home. That’s quite normal. It doesn’t mean you don’t own the home on your own.

Homeownership is separate from any loan you carry on the house

If you and your spouse happened to have a mortgage on the property at the time of your spouse’s death, you would now be entirely responsible for making those payments every month.

In most states, the mortgage lender has a lien on your home until you pay off the mortgage company in full. In your situation, you paid off the mortgage lender and the lender should have sent a release of the mortgage for recording or filing to the office that handles real estate documents in your county (typically, the Recorder of Deeds).

Keep in mind that your ownership in your home isn’t affected by paying off the loan. The loan and your ownership of the property are independent of each other.

Trust deeds vs. mortgages – they’re different

Be aware that in some states, a lender takes a trust deed and not a mortgage as collateral for the loan. In general a mortgage and trust deed work to provide the lender collateral and security for the homeowner’s loan. The one difference in the law is that the trust deed gives the lender custody of the title to the home until the loan is paid off. When a lender has a trust deed as collateral and the loan is paid off, the lender issues a release of the trust deed to give the property owner full rights to the property.

In your situation, make sure that your lender released the mortgage or issued the release of the trust deed. You would also do that at the local Recorder of Deeds office. Call them and ask if they can help you look up the relevant records. You might also be able to get this information online (some areas do charge for access, but the cost should be nominal).

Deed to your house: Why you might not own it outright

Of course, if you and your husband did not own the home with rights of survivorship or as tenants by the entirety, that will require a different set of steps – particularly if he died intestate, without a will. But, if this is the case, you should find an estate attorney or real estate attorney to discuss your ownership of the home, who else might now have an ownership interest and what steps you might need to take to determine what happens next.

Getting the deed to your house doesn’t mean you won’t be scammed. Here’s how to protect yourself

Finally, your email mentioned that you’re worried about being scammed. Here are a few ways to protect yourself:

  1. Check your title from time to time. Make sure no additional liens have been attached to it.
  2. Change your online passwords. Use strong passwords and a password manager.
  3. Use two-step authentication, so you are notified if anyone is trying to access your accounts.
  4. Put a credit or security freeze on your credit reports with Equifax, Experian and Transunion.
  5. Never click on any email or link from someone you don’t know. Good luck.

Ilyce Glink is the publisher of ThinkGlink.com and writes the Love, Money + Real Estate Newsletter. Sign up here.

Read More about Deeds:

Should I set up a trust or use a transfer-on-death (TOD) deed?

What is a Deed of Trust?

Putting Your Child’s Name on a Property