What happens to your house when you die if no one knows you've died?
May 6, 2017 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Bob lives in Smallville, USA, population 2,000. He has no family, friends, or job, and he keeps to himself. He takes a trip to Metropolis, a thousand miles away, whereupon he dies and is found by the Metropolis police. What happens to his house?

With no family or friends to be notified of Bob's death, or even notice he's gone, will his house just stand empty for years until a lack of maintenance makes it clear to passers by it has been abandoned?

Or will the local government of Metropolis alert the local government of Smallville to Bob's death, leading to Smallville taking possession of the house?

This is a purely hypothetical question. Let's assume Smallville is not the kind of town where everyone is up in each others' business, or at least if they are, no one is up in Bob's. Bob did not leave a will. In case it matters, let's say both Smallville and Metropolis are in Alaska.
posted by ejs to Law & Government (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
dead Bob will fail to pay his property taxes. The house will go up on a tax sale.
posted by rudd135 at 9:06 AM on May 6, 2017 [12 favorites]

The Metropolis police will do their best to identify Dead Bob, then notify his local cops --- so assuming Dead Bob carried the minimum normal ID on him (a driver's license will have his address printed on it, a credit card can be linked back to an address) then at least the Smallville authorities will know and probably start the local probate court on it.

Besides failure to pay property taxes, there's also things like mortgage and utility companies --- utility companies would probably just cut off services for failure to pay, but a mortgage company will repossess the property.

Only way no-one will notice Dead Bob is dead is if he has never had any contact with the law (never fingerprinted etc.), doesn't own any real estate, lives totally off the grid, and has no bank accounts or credit cards. Might take a couple years (we're all heard those stories, right?!?) but sooner or later, they will.
posted by easily confused at 9:19 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ianal. if Bob left a will dispersing his estate to say a charity or neighbor or whatever the local probate court will take possession of the estate's holdings including the house, sell and disperse. If Bob had no will it varies state to state but essentially probate happens still to ensure discovery of estate and potential claims to the estate and then the gubment takes possesion of the estate. Some states pay the value into education, or the local Medicare thing or health fund etc, generally some "public good fund.
posted by chasles at 9:20 AM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

So there are both legal and practical answers to how this will play out. Legally, if Bob dies intestate (without a will) and individually owns the property, it will go into probate. When no one step up to be executor, the court will appoint one to settle the estate. From here on out it gets hazier but likely any money left over from the estate (after settling debt, selling the house, etc.) gets held for a certain period of time in case an heir appears.
posted by whitewall at 9:23 AM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah your question has a few parts to it

- Does Smallville find out Bob has died? Almost certainly yes. If Bob owns a house, there is paperwork saying Bob owns that house and in most places (in the US) he'd be paying taxes on it. Metropolis police are going to work really hard to try to figure out who their John Doe is and where he was from. There are some people who go unidentified, but they are less plugged in to the system than Bob is.
- What happens to the houses of dead people with no wills/heirs? There are processes for this including trying to identify next of kin (which is where you find these odd cases of second cousins of hermit-types suddenly inheriting their stuff) and then the probate process which are pretty codified do deal with this (and basically every other) eventuality.

I live in a town a bit bigger than Smallville and I am on the local board of elections. We go through the voter rolls every year to see what we know about the people there, specifically who may have died, moved or changed name or location. Anyone who owns a house pays property tax (and they do in Alaska also) so the town would repossess the house sort of quicklike once they knew he was dead. Unless Dead Bob had lived way up a road where no one saw his yard (possible!) someone might recognize that he was not there and have called the cops. Same with local utilities, some of which are managed by the town, so the town might take an interest.

There are ways you could thread this needle, as easily confused mentions where someone might not find out for a good long time but most of the time that sort of thing works out. If you're interested in abandoned house scenarios (I often am!) there are also ones in which a wealthy person inherits someone else's property somewhere where they don't live. They keep paying minimal taxes (and no utilities) on the property for decades because it's easier than dealing with a tax sale. I had a neighbor here in VT who had property (though no house) in Colorado that cost him $100/year which was easier to pay than either selling it or getting it foreclosed on.
posted by jessamyn at 11:43 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

(IANAL) If Smallville somehow does not hear about Bob's death, eventually the house will be taken for back taxes and the proceeds after taxes, if any, would go into the state's unclaimed property fund. Where it would stay pretty much forever waiting for a claimant.

But as pointed out, chances are Smallville will find out and the process goes through probate. Whoever is appointed to handle the estate would research to find possible relatives. Everyone has relatives even if they don't know them. In Alaska, if it is determined there are no living parents, brothers, sisters or children, then next ones in line are grandparents, then any surviving children of the grandparents (decedent's aunts, uncles), then any surviving grandchildren (decedent's cousins), then to any surviving descendants of the cousins. This is pretty standard in other states as well. If no surviving qualifying relatives can be found at all, the estate passes to the state by escheat.
posted by beagle at 12:17 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you all! Can you tell I've never owned a house, in that I didn't think of property taxes?

The true purpose of this question was for a story I'm working on, and your answers helped very much with figuring out what would happen next. Again, thanks!
posted by ejs at 3:48 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're trying to figure out how to keep Bob's death secret longer, he could have maybe set up a living trust with a hands-off trustee bank in another city somewhere that pays his property taxes and homeowner's insurance so he doesn't ever have to deal with it. (Let's assume Bob's mortgage is paid off.)

He could have been convinced this was advantageous for taxes, or maybe it was set up that way when he inherited the house from his elderly mother whose dementia made it difficult for her to keep up with bills, or he could have done it to try to hide his ownership from the press/a stalker/his estranged family. (The middle reason is the best one; the first one sometimes applies but mostly lawyers like living trusts because they pay lawyers a lot, and the third, protecting privacy of ownership in the internet era is questionable, but theoretically maybe possible.)

But yeah, in Alaska, I'd assume once the head was shut off the pipes would freeze, and then burst, and so you'd only get through one winter season before SOMEONE would notice the house deteriorating because water damage is kinda obvious. HOWEVER, that doesn't necessarily mean anything would be done about it. For example, I know a lawyer dealing with a situation where a guy died over a decade ago and left his sister his house. She was also elderly and didn't live nearby and at first she paid the taxes and for someone to maintain it and kept putting off getting it sold because it was such a strenuous and involved process, but about five years ago senility set in and she stopped doing anything with it. It's been flooded for MORE THAN FOUR YEARS and nobody's paid taxes in about five, and JUST NOW has the city in which it's located started to pursue a tax sale. (You'd think it would have been stripped of anything valuable but other than the insane water damage, it's largely intact, down to a boat just sitting there in the driveway.) Anyway, everyone -- the city, the neighbors, the county -- was aware the house was abandoned, but nothing really happened with it for a long, long time. That will vary a great deal based on local government priorities.

If you want the abandonment found faster, burst the pipes. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:34 PM on May 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

In Smallville AK, you'll also have to think about what kind of small town, too. I imagine things are different if Smallville is off the road system, or if Bob lives in a dry cabin (so no pipes to burst). How far out of town does he live? It could easily be the state troopers that are the local police presence. (Or maybe Bob lives in Wasilla, who knows.)
posted by leahwrenn at 7:10 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I appreciate the bonus round, thanks! But in my story, Bob travels back in time a year and is killed in Metropolis, and I'm wondering whether Bob-of-a-year-ago living in Smallville will learn of his own death at the time thanks to the authorities. It sounds like the Smallville cops will check in on him, see he's still alive, and report back to the Metropolis cops that they've got the wrong guy—Bob is fine and still paying his property taxes. That obviously brings up new questions, but Bob can realistically avoid a predestination paradox where he learns the date and location of his death. Too bad for Bob! Again, thanks!
posted by ejs at 9:41 PM on May 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

One issue that does not arise often but regularly enough: If he truly has no known relatives and therefore no one who will be able to inherit the real estate, and no one to open a probate estate, each state has provision for a public administrator to open an estate, sell the home, pay creditors, and close the estate. Whatever remains after the creditors are paid goes to the state, which will hold it in its "lost property" division until someone speaks up to claim it, if they ever do.
posted by yclipse at 3:34 PM on May 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

The New York Times had an article about this exact subject a couple of years ago - The Lonely Death of George Bell. NYC is somewhat unique but the details in this article may help answer your question.
posted by belau at 5:38 PM on May 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Tangential: A Michigan woman died in her home; the authorities did not find the dead body for *years* after the death. The taxes, mortgage and other bills continued to be paid through automatic payments; it was only when the money ran out that the post-death process started. Morbidly fascinating.
Michigan woman's auto-payments hid her death for over 5 years (CNN)
posted by Ardea alba at 8:52 AM on May 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

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