Q: I own a home that my mother gave me by quitclaim deed. She did this two months before she passed away.
The attorney who handled my mother’s legal affairs before she died mistakenly put my maiden name on the deed, as opposed to my married legal name. To make matters worse, she admittedly also put my wrong middle initial on the deed. This all happened back in 1996. At that time, her doctor told her that there was nothing more he could do to help heal her and that death was certain.
I was so upset over my mother’s medical condition that I didn’t pay attention to what the attorney was doing. I am her only daughter and I was losing my best friend. I have done nothing at all with the title to the home in all these years.
The attorney that drew up the deed said she has mistaken other people’s names in the past. But when I asked her to help me fix it, she told me to find another attorney.
What is your advice on all of this? I am in ill health and I’m anxious to rectify this situation, so that my twin sons have no problems inheriting the house when I die. What can I do to straighten this mess out?
A: We’re so sorry to hear about your health and this story about the attorney who mishandled the quitclaim deed of the property from your mother to you. We’re not sure your mess is as big as you might think, but you will need someone you trust to help sort this out.
The easiest way to do it will be to hire either an estate attorney or a real estate attorney. Given your ill health, the estate attorney should be your first choice, because they will be able to help you plan your estate; not just fix the title to the house you got from your mother, but also any other assets you have.
You have the opportunity now to fix the way your mom’s house is titled and figure out how to transfer ownership of this home and your other assets in the simplest way to your kids. They will eventually inherit these assets after you die, but you can control how easy it will be for them to get them.
If your estate isn’t huge, it can probably pass it down to your boys without any taxes owed. But if you want to escape probate, then you’ll need to get the title to the property sorted out and put it into a living trust. Initially, the trust will name you as the beneficiary and will name the twins as successor beneficiaries. If they aren’t of majority age (18 in just about all states), then you’ll need to name a successor trustee to manage the trust on your kids behalf. If your kids are past the age of majority, you should be fine, and you can name your kids as executors for your will as well.
None of this is particularly hard. It just takes a little bit of time. To find a good estate attorney, you’ll want to contact your local bar association and ask for the head of the estate law committee or request a recommendation from the list of attorneys they keep.
If you talk to the head of the committee, describe your situation and ask for a couple of referrals. Call those people and talk them through the issues, ask what they think you should do and then ask how much they’ll charge and how long it will take. A simple trust and estate plan might cost around $2,000 plus some other costs in changing the title to your real estate holdings. But you’ll feel so much better once this is done.
Also, do yourself a favor and talk this through with your boys (assuming they’re old enough to process the information). We did this with our kids when they turned 16 and then again when they turned 18. We’ve been very open with them about money and inheritances their whole lives, and now each of them is extremely careful with the money they have. We feel sure that they’ll always handle money responsibly. That’s a fine legacy to leave your children, by the way — above and beyond the house and your other assets.
Here’s something to chew on when it comes to your mother’s house: We don’t know whether you and they live in the house now, or might someday, or if it’s rented. But, you’ll also want to spend time talking with them about the property, and what they might want to do with it (fix it up and live there, rent it, or sell it). You should help them understand what it takes to manage real estate, the maintenance expenses and annual expenses (like real estate taxes), and what you think they should do with the sales proceeds if they decide to sell in order to have a good start in life.
Depending on how sick you are, these may be difficult conversations to have. We hope you have someone in your life who can help you work through these issues and perhaps even sit in on these conversations with your children. Thanks for writing.
(Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact Ilyce and Sam through their website, bestmoneymoves.com.)