Tangled Title Means You Don't Own Your Home

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Imagine moving in with your aging mother to care for her in the family home. After five, 10, 15 years, she passes away, and you stay in the home because … well, it’s where you live. You’ve been keeping up with the utility bills and mortgage payments, cutting the grass, fixing the leaks in the ceiling. It’s your home, too.

But it may not be, under the law.

If your mother didn’t get around to putting your name on the deed or leaving you the property in a will, then the house likely belongs not just to you, but to all her descendants. This is known as a tangled title – tangled because to legally act as the homeowner, you must first get every living descendant to give up their portion of the property, even those who haven’t seen the house or visited your mother in years.

Allegheny County alone has an estimated 4,000 tangled titles right now with additional tangled title properties persisting in both Beaver and Lawrence Counties. With an attorney, fixing your tangled title could take over a year. Without an attorney, the chances of untangling your title are almost nil.

Pittsburgh’s 2016 Affordable Housing Task Force brought this issue to the forefront. In response, NLS and the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership established the Tangled Title Project, a concerted effort to guide clients through the process of untangling a title.

Today, untangling a title is a costly and lengthy process. As reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017 , the average client is asked to pay $1,200-$2,500 in administrative costs, plus 35 hours in attorney fees and, in most cases, inheritance taxes (Pennsylvania is one of only two states that currently taxes bequests to lineal – e.g., parents, children, grandchildren – heirs; further, the state’s inheritance tax applies regardless of the size of the estate, despite federal law). NLS’ goal has been to help reduce the costs and impediments to clearing up a tangled title so that more low-income residents can stay in homes they can afford.

After all, the region is facing an affordable housing crisis; what’s more affordable than a house you already live in?

Tangled Titles Threaten the Well-Being of Low-Income Residents

Not having a home in a resident’s name can affect their health and quality of life. In many cases, families are forced to live with leaky ceilings, molded wood, or broken pipes because, without official ownership, they are barred from accessing nonprofit repair services, free weatherization programs, or financial assistance like home repair grants or loans. Further, many families become financially pressed by mortgages or back taxes because the tangled title causes them to be ineligible to negotiate with a mortgage company or assert a tax payment plan.

Economic Opportunity from Property Sales

Tangled Titles further impact residents by preventing a transfer or sale of the property. Many of our region’s original homeowners moved in a generation or two ago, then stayed as property values dropped. Now, as rising property demand makes those properties valuable again, these residents deserve to benefit but cannot do so, as the property title is not technically theirs to sell.

Let’s revisit our earlier example: If you could not afford an attorney to advise you at your mother’s death, you may not have thought about changing the property deed then, or you maybe you simply couldn’t justify the expense for a property of such little value. Now, local property demand has put you in a position to sell your family home for six figures and break a cycle of poverty. However, since your name is not on the deed, you won’t be able to sell or share in the economic opportunity.

This seems not only unfair to residents but shortsighted for the city.

The 2016 Task Force predicted that seniors, working families, and long-term residents will be competing for fewer affordable housing units in the near future. Why not help those facing tangled titles resolve their situations quickly? Our objective is to help our clients stay in the home their family has owned and occupied for generations, keeping them out of the fight for affordable housing elsewhere.

Strength In Partnerships

With all of this in mind, based on experience and the Task Force’s finding, the NLS stepped up to address tangled titles in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership.

With guidance from the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program and funding from the PA IOLTA Board’s Bank of America Grant Program, NLS partnered with the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership along with NLS attorneys Dan Haller and Tom McPoyle specifically to untangle property titles and stabilize home ownership for low-income residents.

In addition, former member of the CORO Pittsburgh’s AmeriCorps Public Allies program Gabrielle Antonicelli, played a critical role in developing and coordinating the Tangled Title Project in 2017.

Neighborhood Legal Services believes that every resident within a community has the right to stable, safe housing – especially when it’s their own. If you or someone you know is in this situation, start by applying online or by calling the NLS Helpline at the appropriate county number (below) or toll-free at (866) 761-6572. Helpline hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Allegheny County Helpline:
(412) 255-6700

Butler County Helpline:
(724) 282-3888

Beaver County Helpline:
(724) 378-0595

Lawrence County Helpline:
(724) 658-2677

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