The case of the hinky homestead. Is this fraud or what?
April 4, 2016 2:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm helping, as a volunteer, with a missing persons/genealogy investigation. The missing person was never formally reported and they are definitely missing. The missing person, as well as several of their deceased relatives, are listed on public property assessment records for the family home with transactions. No persons who are alive with known whereabouts are listed on this property. Is someone committing fraud or is there a legal loophole that allows the following?

-Current owner listed is the missing person (MP)
-Record shows a relative deeded the house to the MP before they went missing (25+ years ago). That relative (not a parent) kept a life estate on the house and died soon after but continues to be listed as the person to whom mail is addressed.
-About 20 years ago, a sibling of the MP swore an affidavit that a parent had died and it was noted that a name change was made to the property, but not what that change was. (The parent was not the same relative with the life estate and the sibling seems very hard to track down).
-About 10 years ago the MP, who had been missing for more than 15 years at that point, is listed as "filed homestead." I am not familiar with this term, but would a signature be required for "filing homestead?"
-An over-65 tax exemption was recently filed in the MP's name (yes, they are over 65).
-The record states the taxes were paid by the MP two years ago and one year ago by two other relatives -- who according to genealogy records have been dead since the 1960s!
-Taxes have been paid regularly on this property and it does not look abandoned although no one appears to be living there right now.

My first thought is that the MP's sibling is handling the payments and keeping dead people and the MP on the records. I know next to nothing about how real estate law works. Could it be an automatic trust payment or something? Is this business as usual, or fraud? Does filing an over-65 tax exemption tie into receiving Social Security? Does the IRS alert the SSA? If Social Security payments are being made to the MP, someone else might be cashing them. Please explain what might be happening here. Thanks!
posted by Beethoven's Sith to Law & Government (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I can answer one question: Social Security benefits are paid only if an individual applies for them. There is no connection between income tax filing and Social Security filing. The person could potentially still be receiving Social Security benefits if he or she began to receive them before going missing - for example, if the person received Social Security disability benefits or applied for old-age benefits at age 62 or later - but that would not be a common case.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:24 PM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Filed homestead" could be a reference to the MP's having filed for the homestead property tax exemption.

The homestead exemption applies to the primary residence and shields a portion of the home's value -- $10,000 in my home state, for example –- from property taxes. The homeowner ends up having to pay taxes only on the home's remaining assessed value.
posted by virago at 2:39 PM on April 4, 2016

The MP did not physically file on their own. They were missing when the filing took place. Clearly someone did this filing and the record states it was the MP. I'm trying to find out if someone filed fraudulently or if this is legal by proxy or through a trust or something of that nature. No trust, proxy, or attorney name was on the paperwork.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 3:28 PM on April 4, 2016

Whatever this is, it is messy and on purpose.

A lawyer should be consulted.

Maybe the missing person isn't so missing?
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:35 PM on April 4, 2016

Where is this located? I'm a person in the US who inherited a house in MA. The house belongs to me (and my sister) according to the will but I've never changed the title into my own name. We pay all the bills. Where I live (VT) "filing homestead" means that you basically affirm that this is your house and primary residence and this lowers your taxes.

This seems like it's all wrapped up in the ownership of the house. I'm not sure what your role is with regards to whether there's fraud or not (i.e. is it just to help you determine if the MP is still missing or are you in some sort of governmental role and/or trying to get someone in trouble?)

My personal experience with complicated property is that if the bills are paid people usually do not care who pays them and that it only gets dicey when someone tries to sell the property. I'd suggest a real estate lawyer if you need to determine the actual laws concerning the specific situation you are dealing with because I agree it sounds messy-on-purpose.
posted by jessamyn at 3:47 PM on April 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

This is all unanswerable without a location. Individual counties handle their property taxes in completely different ways. Homesteading and over-65 exemptions are state-specific laws.

I just checked my county and they'll take any form of payment imaginable for property taxes, with absolutely no proof of ID necessary. There isn't even a form to fill out -- you can just write your property ID in the memo field on your check and mail it to them. They really don't care who's paying as long as they get the money.
posted by miyabo at 4:51 PM on April 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

The missing person was never formally reported and they are definitely missing.

The thing about being missing is that it's a relative statement. Either it's code for "probably dead", or at least one living person knows where that person is--they themselves, if nothing else. But unless they're living in a cave in the woods, if they're still alive, they've got a social life somewhere. If it's been more than 25 years and you're still talking about them like they're probably not dead, you should really be asking some questions about why that is.

I say this because if you're helping with all this and not actually close family to the people involved, I'm just going to suggest that you take some time to consider that "missing" is often a designation abusive people give to victims of abuse who take steps to distance themselves from toxic family. If the sibling here is also avoiding contact with whoever is trying to find MP, then yes, this is very weird. But I would not say that it is substantially more probable that someone is impersonating a missing/deceased person to collect their Social Security than it is that one part of this family is very deliberately trying to keep connections cut with another part of the family, and you might be interfering with more than you intended.

The fact that it looks hinky when you're pulling entirely from the story of your contacts in that family and a very small number of public records doesn't actually mean there's anything fraudulent going on here. Those dead people paying taxes could, for example, be younger relatives with the same or similar names who have no contact with the side of the family you've been working with. If someone was missing under normal circumstances, this would have been reported to law enforcement. This screams "messy family drama" more than anything else. Be careful.
posted by Sequence at 8:20 PM on April 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

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