Family Fighting Over Inheritance
August 11, 2017 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend. My friend and her sisters have inherited a house from her mother, which they are supposed to sell and split the proceeds. The difficulty is that one of the sisters isn't willing to sell at anything less than top dollar and is just generally being difficult (doesn't respond to offers on the house, doesn't answer her phone or reply to calls).

So the question is what can they do legally? Is there any law aimed at this kind of behavior? None of the parties involved have much money, so lawsuits and lawyers are not her first choice for response. The house is sitting empty so maintenance and insurance are ongoing expenses and other repairs that might required could easily end up beyond my friends ability to pay, so time is of the essence.
posted by doctor_negative to Law & Government (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Who is the executor?
posted by flabdablet at 10:54 AM on August 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

Advice of a lawyer is unavoidable, but a lawsuit may not be. If the mother's will doesn't make an express gift of the house in shares to the children, and house hasn't yet gone through probate and been re-titled in the names of the children, and the holdout sister isn't the/an executrix, it could be in the power of the executor to sell the house, but the executor would still need a trust and estate lawyer to guide him or her through an opposed sale.

If any of the foregoing isn't true, though ... it's about begging and pleading to be reasonable, and then eventually a lawsuit to apply for a forced sale, which is sadly a VERY common outcome around shared inheritances, but (un)sadly is so common that the legal costs aren't hugely high as they would be for uncommon proceedings.
posted by MattD at 10:56 AM on August 11, 2017 [12 favorites]

I was the executor for an estate including a house that had to be sold before it ate up the rest of the money in the estate. The executor has a legal obligation to the other heirs not to accept an offer well below market value just to get it off her hands for her own convenience, without their consent -- something something fiduciary duties. Your friend will need a lawyer if she can't convince her other sibling(s) that a particular offer is the best they're going to get, and if there are multiple offers that this sister is not responding to, she may be correct that they aren't the best they can do even if she is not being responsible about planning and communicating.

I don't believe anyone needs the other sisters' permission to have the house assessed independently or to ask a realtor for their estimate of a reasonable selling price; what is "top dollar" should be based on market research, not on one sibling's ideas of what it's worth -- she can't sue later because she wanted to hold out for a million if the house is worth $30K (or at least, she would lose.) There are legitimate differences of opinion about whether it's more profitable to spend some money making the house look better now in exchange for a theoretically higher selling price, but if the money for repairs does not exist, this doesn't matter.

But the executor needs a lawyer. It should be possible to retain one who will work for a percentage of the estate (or of the proceeds from the house sale, if that's all there is) so that it will be affordable by definition. and your friend needs one even she isn't the executor. If there was anything at all in the estate besides the house, anything left over after funeral costs and leftover medical bills, and if it is not yet fully distributed, house upkeep should be paid out of the estate account and not from anyone's personal funds. They need a lawyer to sort out all of this.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:47 AM on August 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

If what you're saying is that the will stipulates that the house is to be sold and the proceeds divided among the siblings, then the *estate* should do the sale, typically but not always IN probate court under probate court rules (at least, in this jurisdiction).

If what you're saying is that the will stipulates that the house is to be awarded to the siblings, and that the siblings have decided among themselves that they will sell, then that's not a probate issue. That would in fact require consent of all named owners of the house (at least in this jurisdiction).

Being a bad person can fuck a lot of stuff up. If the bad sibling has a specific price in mind which is high but not insane, and the other siblings are rational economic actors, then they might consider allocating the bad sister the dollar amount she would receive from the price she insists on, and dividing the remainder among the good siblings. At least the asset wouldn't be wasting. Then just tell the bad sibling to go fuck herself and never talk to her again. At least she'll have the joy of the money.
posted by janey47 at 12:23 PM on August 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

From my own experience: in our case, the sibling "holding out for top dollar" ( but in actuality just not getting off her ass simply because she found the house handy if she didn't feel like driving all the way to her own home) anyhow, in our case, that WAS the executor holding up listing the house then demanding an unreasonable price. By the time it finally was sold, it was into the 2007-2008 real estate downturn.... in the end, my sister's screwing around meant EACH of us got about $50K less than we could have. Aarrgh.

Holding up selling means that it costs money to maintain, money for mortgage payments, money for taxes, and money for insurance, all of which get paid before the remainder is divvied up. The executor does not have to wait for the rest of the legatees to come to a consensus; if the 'top dollar' sibling isn't the executor then the executor should consult a lawyer and proceed with the sale.
posted by easily confused at 12:52 PM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I did this after my Mom died. Life was difficult for many reasons, and I held things up because I just didn't have the energy to deal with reading, understanding and signing paperwork. Maybe she's depressed, maybe she's having trouble processing Mom's death, etc. Can somebody go sit with her and chat? and ask how she's coping and if there's anything that can be done to help her cope and allow the sale process to proceed? In my case, my sister called and said How about if we go over it together, by phone, and I'll help you get it done and we did.
posted by theora55 at 12:55 PM on August 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

theora55, you're right, there are often good reasons for delays. I'm in reactive mode because the sister of a dear friend was the trustee of their father's trust, and she spent the first 8 months after his death wasting all the estate's assets, pulling money from bank accounts, running up credit card debt, driving the car that belonged to the estate without insurance and without a valid driver's license. She was replaced with the backup trustee but not until she had sold most of the valuables. And she is of course judgment proof at this point.

Your situation and hers looked very similar from a distance. Up close, they are quite different.
posted by janey47 at 1:11 PM on August 11, 2017

@flabdablet There was no executor named, the will was handled by an attorney.
posted by doctor_negative at 4:30 PM on August 11, 2017

That response raises more questions than answers.

What I gather is that the children were named with the mother as co-owners and now own the house outright. The will in that case does not matter.

If true, in most jurisdictions the solution is an action for partition. Essentially the court steps in and orders the house sold, and the co-owners no longer have the veto power.

Legal advice is needed. “Lawsuits and lawyers” could be her only option.
posted by yclipse at 4:58 PM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

In manystates the executor can be given the express power to sell in the will itself, and the beneficiaries do not have to consent. It may be worthwhile to probate the will to have the executor appointed.
posted by Sweet Dee Kat at 7:16 PM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a data point, I've been granted partition on my home but have waited a year (so far) for the court to do anything related to selling the place.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:45 PM on August 11, 2017

Are you totally sure no executor was named, not even the lawyer who drew up the will? I mean, •somebody• has to be in charge of things. If there somehow isn't an executor, then probably it's up to probate court to settle the estate.
posted by easily confused at 10:29 PM on August 11, 2017

Leaving aside the legal/will side, the answer is simple. Sister B buys out sister A, sells house, keeps proceeds. Doesn't matter which one does what, both get what they want, more or less. There is some rewarding of bad behaviour if the pragmatic one buys out the 'hold out' one, but that may be necessary to get a sale happening.

This was me, but in a divorce/property settlement situation. Cost me, but it was a price I had to (was prepared to) pay because it gave me the freedom to do things my way.
posted by GeeEmm at 4:31 AM on August 12, 2017

The basic facts boil down to there is a house, jointly owned which is up for sale and one of the owners is not responding to communication from the others when there are offers made. There is evidence that this is because she can't deal with reality. She is not ready to sell the house even though this is going to cause them all financial hardship.

Incommunicado sister may have a poor grasp on financial reality because she has watched too much TV, or may have neurological issues, or may not be up to dealing with any stress in her life, or may be still processing grief and be using the holding-out-for-a-higher-price as a means of delay. Whatever else is going on she has an unmet need, or there is a family dynamic going on that will have to be addressed before the house can be sold.

I am willing to bet that the incommunicado sibling and her siblings who are entertaining offers for the house are all having the same thought about each other, "You are not listening!" That doesn't mean that they can overcome this dynamic. They need a mediator, such as an aunt, not a lawyer. People who ignore texts and calls are usually feeling beleaguered, "Ack! Can't deal!" or feel that they have already made their response plain. "I won't accept any offer under $270,000. Why do they keep sending them to me??" I'm not saying the sister is being reasonable. But the only thing they can really do is go through probate and have an executor appointed, which will take time and thus eat up much $$$$ or figure out a way to communicate and negotiate with the sister, and negotiating is likely to be much cheaper, if they can avoid being adversarial.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:27 AM on August 12, 2017

There are jurisdictions where it is not legal to "make" someone own property with you when they don't want to, and judges can force a sale of the property at auction with the money being split among the owners. But only an attorney can advise you of this.
posted by Hypatia at 8:00 AM on August 12, 2017

I think your friends should get a consult with a lawyer, and then think long and hard about what to do, possibly with the support of a therapist. I can't say it's unheard of for a family to bounce back from an inheritance-related lawsuit, but it's unheard of by me. If you're lucky, the next generation born after the lawsuit may *begin* to mend fences and get to know one another. If this is a family that for social or economic reasons cannot accommodate years of angst, in the short term, and a generation of rift, in the long term, then your friend should explore every possible alternative in her power before broaching the lawsuit. She also needs a lawyer who will be realistic with her, and a therapist who will help her be realistic with herself, about how much money will actually be left after the lawsuit.

That said, families come to many and creative solutions short of lawsuits that, while painful in the moment and often resulting in grudges and intergenerational echoes, do not have the intense rift-effects of a lawsuit with public record, depositions, subpoenas, etc. A good lawyer will help guide your friend on that too, and a therapist to help her think through what she can really live with it, and support her in caring for the family relationships (that she chooses to prioritize) in the mean time.

You say that none of the people involved have much money, and perhaps the house itself isn't worth so much. It rankles to be paying out money when you hope to be getting some legacy in, but I think that paying for a lawyer's advice, and possibly (based on good legal advice) pursuing an action where she (legally) washes her hands of both the proceeds of the house and the expenses of the house, could very plausibly end up being the most financially *and* emotionally prudent course of action.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:46 AM on August 13, 2017

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