Q: My brother died in 2004. At the time he was living in the home we were raised in and which my father left to my brother after he died in 1972. When my brother passed away I sold my home and moved into the family house since I was the only other sibling. This week there was a knock on the door and a man handed me what he called some legal documents. It turns out I’m being evicted by a well-known cancer charity. Needless to say I figured this had to be some sort of mistake. There was a law firm down in San Diego listed on the paperwork the guy had given me and so I called them to explain that this was my house. By the way, I should mention at this point that the house is completely paid for and there is no mortgage so there couldn’t have been a foreclosure. Well, the man pulled the file and told me that my brother had something he called a live estate on the property and when he died the charity inherited it. I’m really confused. This was my dad’s house, and then my brother’s, and now it’s mine. Does any of this make sense to you?
A: Maybe. There’s a lot missing from your story, but let me try to fill in as many blanks as I can.
I’m betting you misunderstood the San Diego attorney and that what he told you was your brother had a “life” estate in the house. These aren’t that common and so it takes a little explanation.
Most of us think we either own a piece of property or we don’t. The truth is it’s never that easy.
The analogy law professors use when teaching budding lawyers about real estate is to think of a piece of property as a “bundle of sticks.” Each stick is some type of right in the property.
For example; you could buy a house in a subdivision. There’s a bunch of those sticks that goes along with your ownership. You can live on the property, plant grass and trees, build a deck, throw a party, refinance, sell, will it to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after you die, etc.
But even then, you wouldn’t hold all of the sticks.
The city undoubtedly would have an easement in the front of your property where they can plant a tree or access the water main. Utility companies likely have easements elsewhere on your property that you can’t build over or forbid them from accessing. State law dictates how you have to construct your deck and would prevent you from having a nuclear reactor in your backyard.
You may live in a community with a big set of CC&R’s that control everything from how many dogs you can have to the color of your house.
All of these are sticks that are part of your house’s bundle but that you don’t own.
In a life estate you simply own an even smaller piece of the bundle.
In short, you have the right to live on the property and treat it like anybody else treats their property. The difference is your rights die with you.
In other words; you can remodel, build your deck, and even refinance if you can find a lender, but when you die the whole thing automatically belongs to somebody else.
For example, if you had a life estate and sold the property, the buyer gets to have it only for so long as you’re alive. When you die, the buyer’s interest goes away, since they only bought the ownership interest you had.
Life estates are an ancient way of holding title. They are primarily used for estate planning purposes and often for complicated tax avoidance.
My educated guess at what happened was your dad gifted the house to the charity, but reserved a life estate for your brother. When your brother died the house reverted to the charity automatically.
Now my hunch is the charity didn’t know anything about this, which is why it took 10 years to come knocking on your door. But somehow they recently discovered they owned the house. It’s likely they had it investigated and found you. Now they want you out of their house.
There are some possible defenses that are way beyond the scope of this column, but you’ll need to get the advice of an attorney to see if there’s anything that can be done.
In the meantime, you’d better do something quickly because eviction actions can proceed from start to finish in just a matter of weeks.
Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like to have answered in this column you can contact him at [email protected].