Wilkinsburg has many old houses– some with no useful life remaining, others that are better than any replacements that would be built if they were demolished. This is what I care about– keeping still-good houses as affordable housing in Wilkinsburg. Many of the old houses are owned by people who have lived there for many years, staying on in neighborhoods that aren’t attractive to new homeowners. When the owner of an old house dies and no one from the family opens the estate to transfer title to the property, who owns the property?
Answer: A property is owned by the deceased owner until an estate is opened, advertisement is published for claims on the estate, and the title to the property is transferred by the estate. The property is not automatically owned by any heir, by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, by the borough, or by any creditor. Think about it– even if the deceased owner had only one child, now adult, that presumptive heir would not own the house, because the owner of record could have issued a deed that has not yet been recorded. Our legal system provides for estate administration to settle possibly competing claims to the assets of a deceased owner.
Two key points about laws pertaining to buildings owned by people who have died, first about estate law and second about criminal law–
If a will exists naming an executor, that person administers the estate. If the owner dies intestate (no will), an heir or a creditor petitions Wills & Orphans Court to be appointed as adminstrator of the estate. Pennsylvania estates and trusts law gives preference to the presumptive heirs seeking to administer. An attorney representing a creditor can be appointed administrator on providing letters to the court from all presumptive heirs renouncing their right to administer. An administrator thus appointed does have a duty to the heirs to maximize the value of the estate and has responsibilities to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (Side issue– because the law requires an executor or administrator to maximize value for the heirs, estates as well as homeowners, presumptive heirs, and mortgage lienholders are known to “walk away” from properties that have more debt than value.) When Jane Doe dies and an estate is opened, the house owned by Jane Doe is now owned by “estate of Jane Doe”– and is not owned by the administrator of the estate, whether or not the administrator is an heir. The estate, after accounting for claims and discharging all responsibilities, has the power to issue a deed transferring title to the property.
When a building is abandoned by death of the owner– that is, no heir or creditor opens an estate– the property creates problems for the neighborhood– and for the municipal government. There is no crime of burglary or trespass against an abandoned property. That is, “the property is abandoned” is an “absolute defense” against any charge of trespass or burglary. There could be a crime in connection with entry to the abandoned property– for example, illegally turning on water at the curb would be (I believe) a theft of service. And, to preserve community health and safety, no one has a right to live in a building without an occupancy permit issued by the code enforcement department. But use of force or intimidation to remove someone from an abandoned property, just because the police view the person as “up to no good,” is not supported by law. Even worse, filing false charges (“false” means “no probable cause to believe a crime was committed”) against a person has resulted in the borough being sued for civil rights violations. (The settlement of the lawsuit was reported in the Post-Gazette and by WTAE.)
Having thought this through, from the perspective of a homeowner and taxpayer living amongst abandoned buildings, I believe it is the responsibility of the municipal government to its residents and property owners to keep an inventory of buildings whose owners are deceased. Rather than sending the police to chase (certain) people away from buildings that remain abandoned for years after owners have died, and risking crossing the line into a possible lawsuit, the borough should act proactively using estate administration.
Nursing homes that are creditors of deceased residents routinely send attorneys to open estates so they can claim their final payment for services. Some very expensive houses (not in Wilkinsburg) have been sold by estate administrators contacted by nursing homes after the heir of a longtime resident refuses to adminster upon learning that the entire proceeds of sale will be claimed by the nursing home. The municipal government is a creditor with like standing as soon as real estate tax becomes delinquent.
All along, while nursing homes have been acting to get their invoices paid, municipal governments have been allowing blight to spread and acting as if there is nothing they can do. They have been badly advised by their solicitors who stay in the familiar territory of municipal law they learned years ago. They haven’t made the effort to learn what can be done in response to changes in the economy that have had negative effects on municipalities, especially those with many old houses. A little test– when a solicitor advises the local government “you are doing all that can be done” but would not invest a cent of their fees in the municipality that pays them, expect the problem of blight to get worse.
In 2006, Pennsylvania estates and trusts law was amended to name “a redevelopment authority” as next in line, after family mambers, to be expected to open an estate. Any creditor can petition the court to appoint an administrator, but the path starting with a redevelopment authority is explicitly recognized by law. The Redevelopment Authority of Wilkinsburg (WRA) began a program of estate administration in 2011. What happened next will be the topic of another post.