Read Legal Documents Before Signing

Read Legal Documents Before Signing: If you don’t understand them, ask questions.

By Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin

Q: Dad and I traded properties due to his health. When the title company did the deed, they put title to the property in both his name and the name of his home care lady. She was named as part owner of the property. Both my dad and his home care lady died over 10 years ago. 

I acted as my dad’s power of attorney. I had cataracts, making it difficult to read anything. Furthermore, I left it up to the real estate agent to make sure my dad’s name was on the deed as I was named in his will as his sole heir.

Where we live, there is a new law allowing persons 65 years of age and old to get out of paying property taxes if your income is below a certain amount. I am 69, but the deed to the property prevents me from getting this tax status. 

I went through probate court to try to change the deed. And, I contacted the real estate agent that put the property in the wrong name. He assumed the home care lady was my sister and said it wouldn’t matter that she was on the deed. But, she isn’t a blood relative of mine at all and came from Sweden. I need to change the deed. Can you help?

Swapping ownership of homes

A: Your question is confusing: You and your father traded properties more than a dozen years ago, because of his health issues. But, it sounds as though you had health issues as well. In any case, your cataracts were so bad that you couldn’t read the paperwork that basically switched ownership of your properties.

Let’s start there – why couldn’t you and your father simply have lived in each other’s homes? Why did you feel the need to change ownership of the property?

By assigning ownership to each other, you effectively swapped ownership of the homes. We won’t go into the federal income tax implications of this swap. As there are a host of other more important issues to deal with here. Suffice it to say, you may have unnecessarily created a taxable event for yourself down the line.

Wrong person added to home title

If your father’s home care worker was inadvertently given a portion of the property. Why didn’t this come to light when your father died a decade ago? At that time, you could have brought the matter to probate court. And hired an attorney who could have helped you prove this was a mistake or fixed it at that time.

We suspect it never occurred to you that there was a problem with the title when your dad died. You simply thought you’d get ownership of the home upon his death. Here’s the problem: When your dad and the home care worker were put on title to the home, we don’t know if they were put on title as joint tenants with rights of survivorship or with some other form of ownership.

Joint tenants with rights of survivorship

When two or more people take title to a home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, and one of the owners dies, the survivor gets ownership of the entire home. So, if your dad died before the home care worker, the home care worker would have become the sole owner of the home. You’d likely get nothing unless she named you as her beneficiary. On the other hand, if the home care worker died first. Your dad would have been the sole owner of the home when he died. And you would have inherited the home upon his death.

Tenants in common

If your dad and the home care worker were put on title to the home as tenants in common. Where each owned a 50 percent interest in the home. You would have inherited your dad’s 50 percent ownership, but the home care worker’s 50 percent would belong to her heirs, whether they were located in the United States or Sweden.

Given the information you provided in your letter. We think someone told you that you don’t own the home in its entirety and can’t qualify for the reduced real estate taxes or the co-owner of the home must apply with you to get the exemption.

The question you need to answer is who owns the other half of the house (assuming the home care worker doesn’t own it outright). Find out how your dad and the home care worker held title, and if it was as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, you may need to find her heirs.  

Get professional real estate help

You’ll have to hire a competent real estate attorney who can help you unravel this knot. You probably thought the home was yours, left to you by your father. You must have been surprised to find out that the home care worker may have had an interest in the home. You’ll have to find a way to get a court to name you the sole owner of the home.

If you can find the care worker’s family and have them all sign a quit claim deed for whatever interest she had in the property, you could solve the situation. However, you might also need other documentation to show that the people signing the quit claim deed on the home care worker’s family’s behalf are all of the surviving heirs.

There may be other legal options at your disposal. You might be able to file a quiet title action to claim title to the property. It could be expensive, and you may have to overcome a few obstacles to get that done, but it may give you another way to get title into your name. 

Bring whatever documentation with you to the appointment with your real estate or estate attorney. The documentation should include everything you have showing ownership of your property and your father’s former home and anything that relates to the history of homeownership with the property.

You’re trying to show that there was a mistake made and prove (if you can) that the home care worker was never intended to be put on title. You also want to show that you believed you were the sole owner of both homes after your father died.

Read legal documents before signing

Finally, we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t remind all of our readers to carefully read all legal documents before signing. If you don’t understand them, ask questions. Don’t allow someone to intimidate you into signing something you don’t understand. 

When you were presented the documents for signature, you should have asked whoever handed them to you to read through the basic information so that you could confirm the documents reflected what you and your father wanted to accomplish.

Good luck. We know the road ahead is long and difficult. But it’s far better to take care of this now than letting more time pass. 

©2022 by Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin.