Protecting Family Real Estate Through Probate From The Government and Other Loss by Texas Real Estate Probate Lawyer Jason S. Coomer
As a Texas Real Estate Probate Lawyer, I am seeing an increasing number of Texas families lose their family's real estate to governmental entities and vultures that purchase real estate at foreclosure sales for pennies on the dollar. In many instances the owner of the real property passes away and the real property gets stuck in the probate process. The family does not have the information or resources to pay the taxes or clear title to the property. In many of these situations, time and delay works against the family until the real property is taken by the government and sold for pennies on the dollar.
Below are some of the common traps that families fall into that allow their real estate to be lost or taken as well as some suggestions on how to avoid or navigate out of these traps.
The Privacy Trap: Lack of Information and Resources Can Result in the Loss of Real Property
The most common trap is the privacy trap where the owner of real estate handles all the finances for the family and does not communicate as to what real property is owned or what other assets are available to maintain the real estate. This is a common trap because many people do not want to share their financial information. Most people want to control their finances through their entire life. Further, as many people age and start to lose their physical strength, they feel more vulnerable making them less likely to share information on their wealth even with family members and loved ones.
In many of these situations when the owner dies or becomes incapacitated, the family will be busy grieving their loss and how to deal with guardianship issues or funeral issues and not have the necessary information or resources to deal with the family's real estate. This often creates a situation where real property can be lost through inaction or taken by opportunists.
Communication and organization are keys to avoiding this potential privacy trap. Having detailed records of real estate and other assets can help prevent both from being lost. These records need to be kept in a safe place and accessible for loved ones to obtain if death or incapacity occurs. Further, communication of asset information and the decedent's wishes prior to death or incapacity are also important, but these conversations can be difficult as most people do not like to think of their own potential incapacity or death.
The Fear of Death Trap: Lack of Estate Planning Can Result in Unintended Issues And Problems
The fear of death trap is also a common trap that can cause real estate to become trapped or lost through lack of estate planning. Most people have a fear of their own death and many will not want to envision a time when they are not alive. This fear will prevent many people from doing any type of estate planning which can result in real estate and other property being lost. In some situations, a person's estate is inherited by minors or long lost relatives. In both of these situations, the lack of estate planning can result in the inheritance by minors or long lost relatives to require the person's estate to have to go through additional and often costly court administration including appointment of ad litems and a dependent administration to properly transfer the property. In both of these situations additional court costs, legal fees, and necessary proceedings can result in a family delaying or not moving forward with the probate process to clear title to real estate.
Further, there can be other unintended consequences where property is given to heirs that do not get along. In many of these situations the family begins to fight over the estate. These fight can tear a family apart, prevent a family from moving forward with the probate process, and/or last years as each side will not agree with the other to moving forward with a simple administration.
In all of these situations and many other situations where estate planning is not done, a person's real estate can get stuck as the lawful heirs do not know how to transfer the real property, refuse to allow real property to be transferred to other family members, or do not have the resources to go through an expensive probate lawsuit.
Estate planning with a lawyer is typically the best way to avoid this trap. Estate planning may cost some money and be a difficult issue to face, but it can often save substantial amounts of money and assets as well as avoid contested probate litigation. Ignorance of estate planning and probate can be extremely costly to many families and will result in the loss of substantial family assets including mineral interests, family farms, houses, commercial property, investment property, lake houses, condos, and other real estate.
The Medicaid Trap: The Government Will Take More Family Real Estate in The Future
In the past, families that had a loved one that needed to go into a nursing home used to be able to transfer that person's property to a family member and then seek Medicaid to help pay for nursing home and medical expenses. Those days are now gone. Transfers of assets to make a person eligible for Medicaid benefits now need to be made at least 60 months (5 years) prior to applying for benefits. This puts families in a difficult situation where family assets would need to be transferred out of the elderly person's control well before there is any need for Medicaid benefits. This early transfer could be beneficial for the family, but could also cause substantial problems for the person transferring all their assets as they would have to trust and rely on their family to continue to take care of them when they may still be physically and mentally fit. However, if the person keeps their home and other assets, they may not be able to qualify for Medicaid when they need it or they may leave a home with a substantial Medicaid lien on it to their family.
The Medicaid trap is probably the most difficult of the probate real estate traps and will continue to become more problematic as health care costs continue to increase, more people need Medicaid benefits, and the government continues to change Medicaid rules to seek more resources in order to continue to provide Medicaid benefits.