Can one of my brothers force me to sell house we inherited from Mom?
September 29, 2015 11:23 AM   Subscribe

When my mom passed about 6 1/2 years ago, the only thing left was the house we grew up in. She died right before the crash when the value was lowest, and while there was no rush, it took about three years before I tried to do anything with it.

This was because my brothers had left 2/3 of it stuffed to the ceiling with their old clothes, ancient electronics and shower gifts they never opened. One insisted I touch nothing of his- and refused to help pay back taxes and electric bills. The other insisted he would empty his space, but never did. He left the fridge running when he'd left and I had no idea since I stayed out of "his apartment" . After about 3 years I emptied it out - which costed 3K and 22 hours of my life.

I had an eye to selling it, but there were so many issues and offers were very low- as it was difficult for first time home buyers to get mortgages. 2/3 of it looked almost as bad as anything in hoarders. The basement was a flooded, there was thick mold and dry rot on everything, busted pipe, dangerous electrical and a backed up sewage.
So I decided to invest a few extra thousand and sell. Still got low offers.
Spent more cleaning and repairing the worst and started renting it out. It will still be a few years before I get back the money I have sunk into it.

My younger, saner brother is fine with my plan to sell it in 5-10 when the market in the Bronx finally recovers a bit, but suddenly the other brother wants us to sell the whole thing now! We made him an offer he thinks is low- his 1/3 of 275K, but he has no idea what the market is like.

I guess I should add he has a very bad drinking problem, and his wife has cut me off years ago since I would not sell at the very bottom of the market. My brother has not spent five minutes helping or paying any expenses- and he has a crazy idea it's going to net him about 75- 90K more than it's current value, which is not that much- about 300K max. I have yet to be repaid half for what I sank into it -about 70-80K, and additionally this same brother took about 15K out of my dying mothers account that should have been left for expenses. That is coming out of his share if I have any say over it!

He has just left me a message asking "what is going on with the house" angry and slurring. The answer is that I have two tenants there until at least next fall, making it much harder to sell. And I don't want to! He also said "Im getting a lawyer soon!"

Uh oh.

I do know my other brother said he would talk to him about us two buying him out and we even talked about the current value, so I guess he is not happy with that. I need to know if either or both of them could force me to sell it before I return his call? I know I need an accountant and lawyer. Need to scrounge up years of receipts and all- which will not be easy for me.

Sad to say preserving my relationship with my older brother is not even a consideration at this point. I have not seen my nephews in years, which is the only point in seeing the family, because his wife is like that- she hates ALL his friends and family pretty equally, and he is drunk all the time, and lets her run the show. I could only see him if I agreed to go to his favorite after (and during) work bar totally hammered then go drive off to suburbia, totally hammered. I can't do that anymore.

His wife would and probably will instruct their lawyer to screw me to the max. I need to call the agreeable brother to see if he is still on board with co-buying out my brother, because I doubt I could afford it myself. Lucky me, I was just laid off and my credit isn't great either.

I have an accountant and know I need a lawyer- but what type? And what would be the best way to convince my brother to trust our offer is fair? (I kind of feel like he wants to force the sale because he doesn't trust my estimate and is too lazy to get his own) Honestly, he is generally quite selfish and a little sleazy and projecting on that. My other brother and I want to be fair.

Any advice, lawyer recommendations and or resources at all would be most welcome! Thank you.
posted by TenaciousB to Law & Government (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Kept all the receipts, and a time log for your efforts. Estate attorney. The understory is sadly, likely, the drunken brother's wife is probably looking for funds to get a divorce settlement. I think the two could force sale, but not the one. You would be doing drunken brother a favor to hold on to it. Make sure any money that goes to drunken brother is less 1/2 of what you paid and labored. Then at sale time the other half of what you labored and paid, comes out of agreeable brother's cut. If they both want out, take them to civil court for your money, first.
posted by Oyéah at 11:35 AM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Most of this stuff, while important to you, are details that are not going to matter to the outcome of the situation. The most important part is: who owns the house, legally? Did your mom leave a will? Is there an estate that is open or closed? Was the house re-titled? Have you been paying expenses on a house that is owned by all three of you? Is there any written trail of agreements you may have had about bills and etc?

You need a wills and trusts/estate lawyer to assist you with this. This may be simple or it may be really complicated but a lawyer can help you make sure you have your ducks in a row and determine what is and is not legally possible. The lawyer can also be someone who your brother can harass and threaten (sorry you are going through this) and so you can insulate yourself from this situation.
posted by jessamyn at 11:36 AM on September 29, 2015 [24 favorites]

I'm not a lawyer, but depending on how the title is held, your brother could possibly file a lawsuit asking for partition - which basically means asking the legal system to force the sale of the property, and have the proceeds divied up according to your ownership percentages. From what I've been told, this takes time, and lawyers generally advise cooperation between the owners as that nets the best price. You need a lawyer, and you need one now - some of the money you've spent may be recoverable if you brother(s) were supposed to be on the hook for it too.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 11:38 AM on September 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

Yes, there was a will- the house is owned in equal shares by my two bothers and I. The house has not yet been retitled.
I just started renting two years ago and estimate it will be another two before I am repaid for the money I have put in so far. As far as managing the place, I have kept them both verbally informed when they asked about it and they were fine with it.

I WISH my SIL was filing for a divorce but she does enjoy having control over my brother and his paycheck way too much for that to be a possibility. She is just a bit of a shopaholic, and wants the money now. When we had the one conversation about it years ago, she wanted the money to buy a second home. When I asked wouldn't she be selling her first home to do that? She asked if I was crazy to think of selling a house in "this market". Exactly!
posted by TenaciousB at 11:46 AM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Who is the executor of your mom's estate?
posted by Rob Rockets at 11:47 AM on September 29, 2015

I am the executor.
My amiable brother knows I have horse sense and am to be trusted to do the right thing.
posted by TenaciousB at 11:50 AM on September 29, 2015

We made him an offer he thinks is low- his 1/3 of 275K, but he has no idea what the market is like.
When it comes to disagreements about the value of a house, arguing about it is not going to solve anything. Get the house appraised before buying anyone out or making any decision about selling, including the decision not to sell right now. An estate attorney would probably have some recommendations for appraisers.
posted by soelo at 12:20 PM on September 29, 2015 [8 favorites]

Also, keep your opinions about your brother and sister-in-law's lives out of the initial discussion. It is their money and it is not your business what they want to do with it or why.
posted by soelo at 12:22 PM on September 29, 2015 [14 favorites]

Really, consult an estate lawyer. The situation is more complicated than you realize. The rents received on the house are owed 2/3 to your brothers (or to the estate -- see below). You aren't entitled to keep all of the rent merely because you have been paying for the upkeep on the house.

On the other hand, if you're the executor, renting out the house and paying for repairs from the rents may be legit, but this assumes the estate is still open and the house is still owned by the estate. And you shouldn't have been using your personal funds.

You say "I am the executor," which indicates that the estate is still open and the house is not "owned in equal shares by" the three of you as you said earlier. Rather, it's owned by the estate.

Now, in an eventual agreement between the three of you, your contributions may be taken into consideration and offset against the rent, but as of now, with no agreement in place, you're in an irregular situation. You need to start getting your own ducks in a row, with legal help.

How did you get through probate without a lawyer? If you had one, consult them right away.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:26 PM on September 29, 2015 [18 favorites]

Oh boy, who has recommendations for a decent, not super expensive probate lawyer in NYC?
The house in question is in the Bronx, so really Manhattan or the Bronx would be best. TIA.
posted by TenaciousB at 12:30 PM on September 29, 2015

My advice would be to lawyer up before your brother does. Get all your ducks in a row. If your brother brings it up again, let your brother know you'd like to keep business & family separate & he's to contact your lawyer about it.
posted by wwax at 12:31 PM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Spent more cleaning and repairing the worst and started renting it out. It will still be a few years before I get back the money I have sunk into it.

If this is now a rental and it's jointly owned by all three of you, are you filing taxes on the rental as a partnership? The exact way all of this is structured could change how all this matters quite a lot. You can't all jointly own a 1040 rental. So exactly how all this is put together might change stuff, but generally, if you put your own money into the property, there are at least circumstances under which he could not actually force sale without you getting reimbursed those amounts. Get together every last shred of documentation of all of this you can find, and take it to someone who can give you actual professional advice.

Just off the top of my head, there's pretty good chance this required tax filings you haven't made, because you don't own the property 100% yourself, but there's nowhere near enough info here to know. I'm going to guess from the sounds of all this that you don't have an official appraisal in hand for what the stepped-up tax basis was at the date of death, which is also not optional. You need more help than just dealing with the brother, here. Whether you want to be or not, you're now involved in a significant business venture with your siblings. If you can't afford to deal with that, then even if it's not financially ideal, you may need to sell sooner than later. You can't do co-ownership of more than a quarter million dollars' worth of investment property by the seat of your pants like this. It's not a moral failing if you're not up to it--I'd agree to be rid of this dead weight in nanoseconds. Your previous expenses are sunk costs. You should try to get them reimbursed, but don't keep yourself yoked to someone this dangerously irresponsible for the sake of money that's already gone. Focus on trying to keep lawyers and income taxes from eating whatever you have left.
posted by Sequence at 12:40 PM on September 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Another thing to ask the lawyer is (if you are the named executor and the estate is still open) are you entitled to an executors fee? I don't know the law in New York, but in Arkansas the executor was entitled to a 10% executors fee (paid by the estate after all other debts were paid and before the final distribution of assets). That fee might help you recoup some of your expenses if you can't get them reimbursed any other way.

Also, if the estate is still open the estate may pay for the lawyer or legal fees. That's also a good question to ask.
posted by MultiFaceted at 12:47 PM on September 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is a probate question for a trust and estates lawyer. You are the executor and have a fiduciary duty towards the other beneficiaries of the will. Therefore you need an attorney. Stat. Like yesterday.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:27 PM on September 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do not fear the lawyers. If your older bro and SIL lawyer up, your life is going to get better.

Look, estate lawyers are not unfamiliar with crazy family dynamics. They know when their client is the crazy person. And they have a whole repertoire of phrases to use to get stuff done in spite of crazy. They've had practice breaking the news that the house isn't worth what people thought, or that the person who paid for the repairs needs to get repaid, etc, etc. Stuff that you and your younger brother have been saying might actually get through if it comes from their own lawyer.

We just finished up settling my uncle's estate amidst family drama and my experience was that estate lawyers are the most chill, least shark-like lawyers out there. It's just paperwork. They just want to get the paperwork done and get paid. My high-drama brother was the one who demanded a lawyer and the lawyer made my life so much easier.

Now you are going to pay a crazy tax. If your brother wants to turn this into a fight then that will involve lawyers calling and emailing each other, and that adds up. In our case, the lawyer got paid out of the estate, so I never wrote a check. The law firm just took their cut before disbursing the money. So, I did end up with a check that was several thousand dollars smaller than it would have been but worth every cent. In our case I agreed to let the same lawyer jointly represent my brother and me (there was also a 3rd heir, our cousin). In retrospect, I think if the lawyer had just represented my brother we would have had the same results, except that the lawyer fees would have all come from my brother's third, and none from my third.

Your one brother and his wife may be trying to turn this all adversarial, but it doesn't have to be. If I were you I would call a few lawyers and just have a conversation with them. Find someone that you have a good feeling about who will help you deal with it. I don't think there is anything irregular or irresponsible about not having a lawyer right now -- if everyone was acting amicably this would not be hard. I mean it is one house. This is not the estate of Howard Hughes we are talking about here.

This sucks and I'm sorry you have to deal with it.
posted by selfmedicating at 1:42 PM on September 29, 2015 [12 favorites]

You say "yes there was a will" and "I am the executor" but the tone of your question and responses - and the fact that nothing has been done with the house for several years - tells me that no estate has been opened in the (I think they call it there) surrogate's court. A will and the designation of executor means nothing until the court acts to accept the will and give the executor the papers he needs to prove he has authority to act.
posted by yclipse at 1:52 PM on September 29, 2015

Oh, and I do have one bit of advice. Don't be afraid of unloading the house at a low price. Let's say you would get $275k for it now and after all the taxes, lawyers, etc, you walk out with $70,000.

Ask yourself: If I had $70,000 to invest right now, would I choose to invest it in this property?

Because that's essentially what you are doing. If you would not purchase the property with cash, don't "purchase" it by passively hanging on to it. Yes, it probably will go up in value, but lots of other things are going to go up in value too that you could buy with that money. And those are investments you don't have to co-own with crazy people!
posted by selfmedicating at 3:20 PM on September 29, 2015 [11 favorites]

If anyone can recommend a good - not crazy expensive- probate lawyer in NYC, I'd be eternally grateful!
posted by TenaciousB at 6:22 PM on September 29, 2015

There's a great section in the FAQ about finding a good lawyer. I'm on mobile, so linking is just not happening for me at the moment. If you can't locate it, it's linked in basically every AskMe about hiring a lawyer. It's really helpful. Good luck!
posted by stoneweaver at 7:12 PM on September 29, 2015

I don't know the law in New York, but in Arkansas the executor was entitled to a 10% executors fee (paid by the estate after all other debts were paid and before the final distribution of assets).

In NY it's a sliding percentage (5% of the first $100K, 4% of the next $200K, and so on).

That also happens to be the same percentage an attorney can charge for probate work.

(IANAL, I work for an estate attorney in New York State but not NYC).
posted by Lucinda at 7:20 PM on September 29, 2015

MeFi Wiki: How to get a lawyer
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:42 PM on September 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

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