Protecting Your Home from Deed Theft
by Marisa Guerrero and Brianna Noonan February 10, 2017
Did you inherit your home after a family member passed away? Do you think you now own the home? Are you sure?
You may think you own your home, but if you inherited the property from a deceased family member, it is possible that you are not yet the legal homeowner.
To become the legal homeowner, you must actually probate the family member’s Will – or administer the estate, if the relative did not have a Will – and actually transfer title of the property into your name. Have you taken these steps?
It is common for heirs to continue living in a deceased relative’s home without probating the Will or transferring title into their own names. However, probate is an extremely important step to protect your rights to your home. This includes protecting against deed theft.
Deed theft involves the transfer of a property deed by someone who does not have a right to do so. One deed theft scheme specifically targets homes whose owners are deceased; scammers know that these properties are vulnerable and aim to steal them away from the deceased owner’s rightful heirs by targeting family members who may not be entitled to inherit part or all of the property.
Protecting Your Home
There are several concrete steps that you can take to protect your home from scammers:
- If you own property: Register for the Record Document Notification Program. This will alert you if documents relating to your property are filed with the county clerk’s office.
- If a deceased relative owns the property: Probate the Will – or administer the estate, if there is no Will. This will alert the court and others of the rightful heirs and will begin the legal process to transfer the deed to those rightful heir(s).
- PELP can HELP! Contact the Planning and Estates Law Project (PELP) if you need assistance with probate or administration and cannot afford to hire an attorney.
- Stay alert about the potential for deed theft scams. Be wary of anyone who approaches you wanting to buy your home or asks questions about your interest in the property. Do not give them information; take the person’s name and contact information and call PELP.
- Spread the word. Keep in touch with siblings and other heirs and alert them to the existence of these scams. Explain to your relatives that they should not work with scammers. Scammers do not pay market value prices. If a relative sells an interest to a scammer it may hurt your family in the long term by jeopardizing or complicating the ability to remain in the house or sell the house at market value.
Look what happened to Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith* has been living in his father’s brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, for decades. His father bought the building in the 1960s; Mr. Smith and his four siblings grew up there, and so did Mr. Smith’s own children. Mr. Smith’s father died in 2001 and his Will names Mr. Smith as the only heir to the home. Mr. Smith never probated the Will; he could not afford an expensive probate lawyer and saw no urgent need to transfer the property into his own name. He continued living in the brownstone, without any legal problems, for 15 years.
In 2016, though, Mr. Smith learned that his father’s property had been targeted by a scammer. The scammer had identified that the homeowner, Mr. Smith’s father, was deceased, and approached Mr. Smith’s sister with an offer to buy her share of the property. Mr. Smith’s sister was not designated as an heir under their father’s Will, and would not have received any inheritance had the Will been probated. This may have made the scammer’s offer seem desirable to her. She took the deal.
Had the Will been probated 15 years earlier and the title transferred to Mr. Smith as the only lawful heir under that Will, his sister would not have been able to sell. But because the probate was never completed, Mr. Smith was never recognized as the new legal homeowner. The property fell victim to a scammer, and now Mr. Smith’s future in his home is in jeopardy. The scammer is now a partial owner and may try to buy the rest of the property from other family members. He may even begin a court proceeding to force the sale of the property. Mr. Smith faces an uphill battle to keep his home and reclaim it as the rightful owner.
Mr. Smith’s story is shocking, but unfortunately, it is not unusual. Scammers take advantage of people like Mr. Smith—those who lack the funds to probate a Will and don’t have access to the legal resources needed to combat scammers, and whose homes in gentrifying neighborhoods are very valuable. Scammers may succeed in their schemes because they have targeted unsuspecting and unprepared owners.
Has this happened to you? What next?
Does Mr. Smith’s story sound familiar? Here’s what you can do if you think that your family home has been stolen by a scammer.
- Check the property records online to see if a new deed has been recorded.
- To report a deed theft: Contact your local Sheriff’s office and county District Attorney (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Staten Island). They may begin an investigation and may be able to help resolve the issue. If they are unable to resolve the issue, or they determine that there was no criminal action involved, you may have to file a civil lawsuit.
- Contact the Foreclosure Project for help determining whether your deed has been stolen.
The Planning and Estates Law Project (PELP) assists low-income New York City residents with wills and estates matters. Contact us at 212-382-6756.
The Foreclosure Project assists low- and moderate-income homeowners facing foreclosure. Contact us at 212-382-6766.
*Client name has been changed to respect the privacy of those involved.
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