I have a rather longstanding financial and ethical problem that I could surely use some sage advice on. I will be as brief as possible. Twenty-nine years ago, upon my mother’s passing, she left a small cottage to my disabled brother as a “life estate.” Four other siblings, including myself, were given status as “remaindermen” to the property.
My disabled brother lived there for many years until he became further incapacitated. At that point, he had a court-appointed guardian. He was placed in a long-term care facility paid for by Medicaid.
Soon thereafter, my sister, the youngest remainderman, asked if she could stay in the cottage “just until she got stabilized,” having recently been discharged from a six-month court-ordered lockdown drug-detoxification program. All siblings readily agreed. She assured us it would be no more than six months.
That was approximately 2010.
Fast forward to 2021. The brother who owned the life estate died four years ago. My sister again asked to stay “just until she could qualify for senior housing.” When she did get old enough for that, she had another reason for not moving. She also has had a series of drug- and alcohol-addicted men living with her and paying her rent.
She has never paid any of us any money in compensation for her usage of the property. When repairs are needed, which is often, she gets a church she knows to do the work as a charitable activity. (She has both a master’s degree in social work and a law degree, but has never earned enough money to support herself.)
The upshot is that my younger brother died this year, having never received any part of this inheritance. My sister set up the original will for my mother and made the ownership joint and several, so my brother’s daughter has entirely lost out on any inheritance from her grandmother.
I asked my sister to consider moving out last winter (before my younger brother died), encouraging her to consider how she could use the money from it to find a better place. The house is truly in deplorable condition. She actually called a realtor and allowed it to be put on the market, resulting in an immediate offer. It’s on a great lot.
However, as soon as the offer came in, she refused it, refused to allow any further showings, and let me know in no uncertain terms she would never move out.
I live 500 miles away. I do not need the money from this property. In fact, I could buy it myself outright with cash on hand. However, I have an older brother who has never even owned his own car. He could really use his share of the estate.
Having now lost a younger brother, I feel like it’s wrong for none of the other siblings to receive any benefit of the inheritance before our deaths. Should I try to go to court in another state to force her out? Or just forget about it? My older brother says he has no energy to fight for this.
You would be shocked at the details I have left out.
Dear Last Straw,
The upside: Your sister has had somewhere to live for the last 10 years. Your family did the right thing at the time. You were and are good people. The downside: She was never going to move out. This was a game of cat and mouse where the mouse finally picked up the cheese and walked away.
Addiction is a terrible disease and, from what you say, it sounds like your sister is not living a sober life. She has strung her family along for more than a decade and even persuaded and/or manipulated — depending on your vantage point — the local church to pay for improvements.
Perhaps you and your siblings can set up a trust for your brother’s children to fund their education. That could go some way in addressing the balance of the lost inheritance from this home. There are ways to help your brother’s family, but of course your hands are tied until your sister agrees to sell the home.
You now face a decision: Do you allow her to live there, as you have done, weighing the risk and reward of legal fees and emotional turmoil, or do you take action? That decision requires a family meeting and consultation with a lawyer so you can weigh the pros and cons of the expense and upheaval in your family.
Should you take legal action?
I asked Blake Harris, the managing attorney at Blake Harris Law , for his thoughts on your situation. He does not believe it’s worth it. “If the property is owned by all of your living siblings, then each of you have the right to live there, and each of you also have the right to sell your portion of the property,” he said.
If you can’t live with that, an attorney could issue a partition action for the probate court to force the sale of your mother’s property. The property taxes, in the meantime, should be paid from your mother’s estate and, if not, the children or beneficiaries must pay for them.
Taking legal action is a last resort, as it can be costly and time consuming. It would likely permanently end your relationship with your sister. It could get ugly with a sheriff knocking on your sister’s door, forcing her eviction. You must all ask yourself as a family whether it’s worth it.
In Florida, for instance, “when two or more beneficiaries are entitled to distribution of undivided interests in any property, the personal representative or any beneficiary may petition the court before the estate is closed to partition the property,” the state’s probate law says.
“The court may direct the personal representative to sell any property that cannot be partitioned without prejudice to the owners and that cannot be allotted equitably and conveniently,” the statute adds. You can check the law in your state, but this is an option likely available to you and your family.
An attorney will advise you on the state law where your sister lives. She is a co-owner, after all, not a tenant or a squatter. If the court forces the sale of the property, it may likely be sold for less than the market value of the property. One final warning: Once a partition action is taken, it’s almost impossible to go back.
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