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Selling Land When You Can't Find One of the Owners

Ask the Real Estate Lawyer: Real Estate Law Q&A

REM #LAW 636

By Ilyce R. Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin

Summary: Here's the scenario. Your mother inherits some land when your father dies. She then becomes "friendly" with a neighbor who is about 25 years younger. She sells her new friend half the land without telling anybody. Now, years later, you and your mother are looking into selling the property, but the friendly neighbor moved away years ago and nobody knows where he is.

Q: My mom inherited 19 acres of land when her father died 50 years ago. Later, after my dad died, my mom became "friendly" with a neighbor who was about 25 years younger than she.
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I just found out that he owns half of her land. He has been out of the picture for a very long time. They were "friends" for two years or so and then she never heard from him again.

I was looking into what it would take to sell her land and in looking at public records I saw that he owned half her land and that it showed a sales price of $25,000. I confronted my Mom about this, but she acted like she didn't know anything about it.

My Mom is a very proud woman and must be very ashamed of what happened when she was lonely and vulnerable just after my father's death. She has always paid all of the real estate taxes on the property.

What measures would she have to take in order to sell her land along with the interest she sold this man? We have no idea where this man is.

A: Iím not clear whether your mom sold 9.5 acres to her former neighbor or whether she sold a one-half interest in all the land to the neighbor. This is an important distinction and you need to figure out which it is.

Letís assume that your mother sold him a one-half interest in the entire property. If the price the neighbor paid your mom for her half interest was fair, you probably could not prove that he had coerced her to selling him that interest. Itís been a long time and proving that the transfer was fraudulent or coerced might be almost impossible.

If, for some reason, the transaction was fraudulent or coerced in some way, you might have a chance at having the sale voided, unless too much time has passed to contest the transfer.

But you have another serious problem Ė the fact that the former neighbor has disappeared. This will make it quite complicated to sell your motherís land. In simple terms, she can try to sell her half interest to anybody willing to buy it and assume ownership of the land subject to the former neighborís interest. But she probably wonít get nearly what the land (even what her own share) is worth since there is a huge risk the former neighbor will reappear some day.

Until the neighbor or his heirs come to claim their interest the property, this new owner would be able to use the property just as your mom has for the last twenty five years.

To sell the land without this problem, your mom will have to launch a serious effort to find this former neighbor. She can publish notices in newspapers, search through the public records, or even hire a private investigator.

If you find him, your mom and the former neighbor can then sell the property and distribute the proceeds to each other. Your mom would be entitled to more due to her payment of the taxes as well as other insurance and maintenance expenses throughout the years.

If you still canít find him after making a good faith effort, you will need to go to court and file suit to partition the property. In effect, you will ask the court to either force the sale of the property to a new buyer and your mom would get paid her share or the court could spit the acreage with your mom ending up with a part of the land and the former neighbor ending up with the other half.

Itís difficult to imagine a situation (other than if she had been coerced to sell or if the transaction was fraudulent in some way) in which your mom would end up with all of the land again.

But at least she would end up with a portion of the land she could sell or with half or more of the proceeds from the sale of all of the land. If all of the land is sold, itís probable that the court would retain the proceeds that would have been paid to the neighbor.

You should sit down with a real estate attorney that has had experience with partition suits in the past and discuss your options with him or her.


Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Ilyce R. Glinkís latest book is 50 Simple Steps You Can Take To Sell Your Home Faster and For More Money In Any Market. If you have questions for them, write: Real Estate Matters Syndicate, PO Box 366, Glencoe, IL 60022 or contact them through Ilyceís website




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