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I live in Florida with my wife; she has a brother and sister who both live in Georgia. We have some questions about the estate of their father who used to live in Pennsylvania but passed away just before Christmas.

Their father had a will in which he stated that the 3 siblings would inherit all his belongings, including the house that he lived in. He had also named one of his brothers as the executor of the estate, but that uncle recently asked my wife's brother to handle the role as he did not want to do it.

The siblings do not have any issues (fighting or such) about dividing the property, but have a concern about the out of pocket expenses. Two issues related to this are:

  1. The house has a small mortgage (less than $50K total, about $500/month) that presumably still needs to be paid, together with any property taxes and any expenses related to the maintenance (city water bill, electricity, etc).
  2. They have not found any evidence that their dad had any life insurance, although some of the evidence related to this may have been removed by a relative (my wife's aunt) who, according to some information from another relative, may had taken a file cabinet out of the estate without permission. The missing paperwork is also the reason why they do not yet know for example how many payments are left on the mortgage.

Their father did however have a CD in a bank (worth approx. $15K) and some investment account (worth approx. $10K). Some of the funds from these will go to paying the funeral house.

It is likely that the siblings will eventually want to sell the house as none of them are interested or able to move to Philadelphia (or able to manage the property from Georgia).

Also the will stipulated that the house cannot be sold as long as one of my wife's aunts (not the same one who supposedly took the file cabinet) is alive. The reason for this is that my wife's father wanted this aunt to have a place to live in, if she needs to. This aunt mentioned in the will may be around for years to come.

On another hand my wife and her siblings are likely not able to keep making extended payments on the mortgage or the property taxes. And even though no one is currently living in the house, they probably should leave things like electricity on so as to keep the house looking occupied (to avoid it being taken over by squatters).

Presumably though the siblings will at least not be liable for estate or inheritance taxes, being that they all live either in Florida or Georgia and the total value of the estate may end up being less than $150K.

The question I wanted to ask about this situation is:

Is there anything my wife and her siblings can do to minimize their out of the pocket running expenses (mortgage payment, taxes, electricity, gas, etc) on the property?

[Update] Thank you all for your answers and comments. I removed the second question "What could be done to find out if their father had a life insurance?" as it is actually answered in this other question.

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    You might want to split the second question off into its own question, linking back to here (and edit this question to link to there). That's very narrow and answerable, but I don't know that someone interested in your title question is necessarily the right person to answer it. – Brythan Jan 11 '17 at 7:26
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    You should definitely get a lawyer and sue for discovery of these documents the other aunt removed. You may need those to do anything with the estate at all. – mag Jan 11 '17 at 14:24
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    Be super careful before even claiming it. Weight all costs and benefits carefully, because with the tenant clause, disclaiming (refusing to accept the inheritance altogether) could be actually a good option. – Agent_L Jan 11 '17 at 15:56
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    I'm a bit curious about the mortgage continuing: I had always thought that mortgages are not transferable on death and instead become due. – Joe Jan 11 '17 at 18:06
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    Surely the only question that is actually answerable here is that in the last sentence while the entire situation surrounding it is something to talk to a lawyer or accountant about? Both aspects are interesting but as the top-voted answer shows this is likely lawyer territory and I'm not seeing any answers or focus on how to minimise running costs on an idle property. – Lilienthal Jan 12 '17 at 11:13
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Also the will stipulated that the house cannot be sold as long as one of my wife's aunts (not the same one who supposedly took the file cabinet) is alive.

This is a turkey of a provision, particularly if she is not living in the house. It essentially renders the house, which is mortgaged, valueless. You'd have to put money into it to maintain the mortgage until she dies and you can sell it.

The way that I see it, you have four options:

  1. Crack that provision in the will. You'd need to hire a lawyer for that. It may not be possible.

  2. Abandon the house. It's currently owned by the estate, so leave it in the estate. Distribute any goods and investments, but let the bank foreclose on the house. You don't get any value from the house, but you don't lose anything either. Your father's credit rating will take a posthumous hit that it can afford. You may need to talk to a lawyer here as well, but this is going to be a standard problem.

  3. Explore a reverse mortgage. They may be able to accommodate the weird provision with the aunt and manage the property while giving a payout. Or maybe not. It doesn't hurt to ask.

  4. Find a property manager in Philadelphia and have them rent out the house for you. Google gave some results on "find property management company Philadelphia" and you might be able to do better while in Philadelphia to get rid of his stuff. Again, I'd leave the house on the estate, as you are blocked from selling. A lawyer might need to put it in a trust or something to make that work (if the estate has to be closed in a certain time period). Pay the mortgage out of the rent. If there's extra left over, you can either pay down the mortgage faster or distribute it.

    Note that the rent may not support the mortgage. If not, then option four is not practical. However, in that case, the house is unlikely to be worth much net of the mortgage anyway. Let the bank have it (option two).

    If the aunt needs to move into the house, then you can give up the rental income. She can either pay the mortgage (possibly by renting rooms) or allow foreclosure. A reverse mortgage might also help in that situation.

It's worth noting that three of the options involve a lawyer. Consulting one to help choose among the options might be constructive. You may be able to find a law firm with offices in both Florida and Pennsylvania.

It's currently winter. Someone should check on the house to make sure that the heat is running and the pipes aren't freezing. If you can't do anything with it now, consider winterizing by turning off the water and draining the pipes. Turn the heat down to something reasonable and unplug the refrigerator (throw out the food first). Note that the kind of heat matters. You may need to buy oil or pay a gas bill in addition to electricity.

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    A will can't put you in debt unilaterally. If it's her house in the life estate, then she's the one who is responsible for paying the mortgage, taxes, utilities, etc. This could encumber the rest of the estate, but it can't force the heirs to maintain the house. They would have to accept the bequest voluntarily. If they refuse, then the estate is simply valueless. But I agree in essence: this is a legal issue. Dump it on a lawyer. – Brythan Jan 11 '17 at 11:07
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    I doubt this will get the votes it deserves, but nice answer sir. – Pete B. Jan 11 '17 at 12:36
  • Why not just disclaim the inheritance? – Agent_L Jan 11 '17 at 15:52
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    @PeteB. +50 now, bet it will get near +100 by the time it drops out of HNQ – Mindwin Jan 12 '17 at 12:23
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    Assuming you have a lawyer anyway, I'd really want to know the answer to the question, "can we legally sell the house with the permission of the aunt it's being saved for?" For example, is it possible to put the money in a trust with the goal to provide accommodation for her in the same area if that's ever required, then be distributed to the beneficiaries on her death. Then choose any assets liquid enough to be able to draw rental from if called on. If she ever does call on it the trust may be sucked dry, but as you've already pointed out: if she ever uses the house it might be foreclosed. – Steve Jessop Jan 12 '17 at 18:13
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Consider contracting with a property management company to lease and maintain the house until it can be sold. Rent on the property should cover the mortgage, property taxes, etc. The property management company can handle maintenance and the tenant would be responsible for utilities.

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Absolutely - rent the property out!

Sure, it's irresponsible for an executor to take actions which endanger the estate. But what about passivity or inaction?

Put it another way. Is it the obligation of the executor to avoid making revenue for the estate? Think about it - what a silly idea!

Consider a 12-unit apartment building full of rent paying tenants. A tenant gives notice and leaves. So do 4 more. With only 7/12 tenants, the building stops being a revenue center and becomes a massive money pit. Is that acceptable? Heck no! Realistically this will be managed by a property management company, and of course they'll seek new tenants, not stopping merely because the owner died.

This situation is not different; the same fiscal logic applies.

Houses don't like to be empty

The counter-argument is usually along the lines of "stuff might happen if you rent it out"... true. But the stuff that happens to abandoned houses is much worse, and much more likely: squatters, teen "urban explorers", pot growers, copper thieves, winter pipe freeze flooding and wrecking interiors, etc. Don't take my word on it -- ask your insurer for the cost of insuring an abandoned house vs. a rented one.

Renting brings a chunk of cash that comes in from tenants - $12,000/year on a $1000/mo. rental. And that will barely pay the bills if you have a young mortgage on a freshly purchased house at recent market rates. But on an old mortgage, renting is like printing money.

That money propagates first to the estate (presumably it is holding back a "fix the roof" emergency fund), and then to the beneficiaries. It means getting annual checks from the estate, instead of constantly being dunned for another repair.

But I don't care about making revenue (outside of putting back a kitty to replace the roof). Even if it was net zero, it means the maintenance is being done. This being the point. It is keeping the house in good repair, occupied, insured, and professionally managed -- fit and ready for the bequest's purpose: occupancy of an aunt.

What's the alternative? Move an aunt into a house that's been 10 years abandoned? Realistically the heirs are going to get tired/bored of maintaining the place at a total cash loss, maintenance will slip, and you'll be moving them into a neglected house with some serious issues. That betrays the bequest, and it's not fair to the aunts.

Rental is a very responsible thing to do. The executor shouldn't fail to do it merely out of passivity. If you decide not to do it, there needs to be a viable alternative to funding the home's decent upkeep. (I don't think there is one).

Excluding a revenue-producing asset from the economy is an expensive thing to do.

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    renting is like printing money Uhh, hate to burst your bubble but renting out a house half the USA away and sharing it with three other people who probably will never agree on operating expenses is more like printing conflict than anything else. – enderland Jan 13 '17 at 0:36
  • laugh perhaps. But bad business decisions due to squabbling are still bad business decisions. It's wrong to "dumb down" good advice merely because some people lack professionalism; that reduces us all. (I hear that's all the rage these days with anti-intellectualism. Not a fan.) Anyway, yet another reason for a sole executor to decide, and for them to use a property management company. Ultimately they must be accountable to a professional/legal review of their handling of the estate. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 13 '17 at 3:04

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