By: Steven M. Williams
I have a home in my community whose owner (my tenant) has passed away. I do not know of any heirs and am at a loss about what to do with the home. It appears that all of the personal property has been removed (“under cover of darkness”) and no rent has been paid in months. The home does not appear to be worth anything, and I know that there are no liens on the home, and all taxes are current. How can I get a determination of abandonment so I can dispose of this home?
The first thing you need to do is determine whether an estate has been opened for the deceased tenant. You can do this by checking with your County Register of Wills. Normally, the Register needs a name, last known address and approximate date of death. If there has been an estate opened, then you can deal with the executor of the estate. He/she will be identified on the papers filed with the Register of Wills. If there is no value in the home, the executor may be willing to sign a notice of voluntary abandonment. If he/she won’t, then you can proceed with an eviction against the deceased tenant’s estate, c/o the executor, and seek a determination of abandonment at the same time.
If there is no estate, then this process becomes more difficult. This is because no one, other than the executor of an estate, has the legal ability to act on behalf of the estate. As a first step, I suggest doing an internet search to see if you can locate an obituary for the deceased tenant. If you can find one, it will usually contain the names of surviving heirs.
While surviving heirs cannot act on behalf of an estate, where an estate is not opened, having all of the heirs sign notices of voluntary abandonment may be the best you can do. If you are successful in obtaining these, you can proceed in the abandonment process with relatively little risk. This is because the only people who would have any interest in the home have abandoned their interests. If the heirs will not cooperate, or you cannot locate them (and, note that you may never be fully sure that you have identified all of the heirs – which presents more risk), then there is no risk-free way to obtain an abandonment.
In your case, there are no taxes due and no liens on the home. If this were not the case, and no estate is opened for the deceased tenant, then proceeding based on the surviving heirs’ notices of voluntary abandonment could be risky. This is because taxes and liens are expunged in an abandonment only if all of the steps required under the law are followed. In this case, you are risk that the taxing authorities and/or lienholder may challenge the abandonment because the legal owner of the home (i.e., the estate) did not abandon it. If this occurs, you could be personally liable for the unpaid taxes and lien amounts owed on the home.
As you can see, the abandonment process has many potential traps. Community owners must proceed with caution at each step of the process to ensure that the ultimate goals of the abandonment (disposal and expungement) are met.