Estate Planning Blog Articles

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What about House Contents when Someone Dies?

Probate law does not allow anyone to take items from a loved ones’ home after they die, until the will has been probated. Learning about probate, what it entails and how to prepare for it may make it a little easier when a family member dies, says a recent article titled “Can you empty a house before probate? from Augusta Free Press. Knowing what to expect can avoid common pitfalls and mistakes, some of which often lead to family fights and even litigation.

Probate is a court-supervised period when the estate of the decedent is on pause. Assets may not be distributed, including personal items in the home. The goal is to ensure that assets are distributed only after the will has been ruled valid by the court and following the instructions in the will.

Probate includes the legal appointment of the executor, who is named in the will with specific statutory responsibilities, to include ultimately distributing assets.

For many people, estate planning includes preparing assets to avoid the probate process. An estate plan includes a review of the entire estate to see which assets are best suited to be taken out of the estate. Living trusts, joint ownership, transfer-on-death (TOD) and many other estate planning strategies can be used, depending on the person’s finances.

Certain tasks can be accomplished during probate relating to the home and other property. This includes changing the locks on the home to protect it from criminals and unauthorized people who have keys. The decedent’s mail can be forwarded to the executor or another family member’s address. A review of the decedent’s bills, especially monthly payments, can take place. If there’s a mortgage on the home, the mortgage company needs to be contacted and the payments need to be made.

As the end of the probate period nears, it may be time to contact an appraiser to get an unbiased, professional appraisal of the home’s value. This will be needed if the home is to be sold, or if the estate plan needs a valuation of the home.

Probate is often a necessary process. It can create challenges for the family, especially if no estate planning has been done. In some jurisdictions, probate is quick and painless, while in others it is a long and expensive process. Prior planning by an experienced estate planning attorney prevents many of the issues presented by probate.

After probate has been completed, the executor distributes the assets, including the personal property in the home. Personal property with sentimental value often sparks more family fights than assets of greater value. Administering an estate when emotions are running high is a challenge for all concerned.

Another reason to have an estate plan in place is to delineate very specifically what you want to occur after your death. That way there is no room for family members to stake a claim and do something contrary to your wishes.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (May 13, 2022) “Can you empty a house before probate?

Can You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

Inheriting a home with a mortgage adds another layer of complexity to settling the estate, as explained in a recent article from Investopedia titled “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage.” The lender needs to be notified right away of the owner’s passing and the estate must continue to make regular payments on the existing mortgage. Depending on how the estate was set up, it may be a struggle to make monthly payments, especially if the estate must first go through probate.

Probate is the process where the court reviews the will to ensure that it is valid and establish the executor as the person empowered to manage the estate. The executor will need to provide the mortgage holder with a copy of the death certificate and a document affirming their role as executor to be able to speak with the lending company on behalf of the estate.

If multiple people have inherited a portion of the house, some tough decisions will need to be made. The simplest solution is often to sell the home, pay off the mortgage and split the proceeds evenly.

If some of the heirs wish to keep the home as a residence or a rental property, those who wish to keep the home need to buy out the interest of those who don’t want the house. When the house has a mortgage, the math can get complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to map out a way forward to keep the sale of the shares from getting tangled up in the emotions of grieving family members.

If one heir has invested time and resources into the property and others have not, it gets even more complex. Family members may take the position that the person who invested so much in the property was also living there rent free, and things can get ugly. The involvement of an estate planning attorney can keep the transfer focused as a business transaction.

What if the house has a reverse mortgage? In this case, the reverse mortgage company needs to be notified. You’ll need to find out the existing balance due on the reverse mortgage. If the estate does not have the funds to pay the balance, there is the option of refinancing the property to pay off the balance due, if the wish is to keep the house. If there’s not enough equity or the heirs can’t refinance, they typically sell the house to pay off the reverse mortgage.

Can heirs take over the existing loan? Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise the family of their rights, which are different than rights of homeowners. Lenders in some circumstances may allow heirs to be added to the existing mortgage without going through a full loan application and verifying credit history, income, etc. However, if you chose to refinance or take out a home equity loan, you’ll have to go through the usual process.

Inheriting a house with a mortgage or a reverse mortgage can be a stressful process during an already difficult time. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to guide the family through their options and help with the rest of the estate.

Reference: Investopedia (April 12, 2022) “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage”

What Happens If You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

Nothing in life is certain, except death and taxes, says the old adage. The same could be said about mortgages. Did you know that the word “mortgage” is taken from a French term meaning “death pledge?” A recent article titled “What happens to your mortgage when you die?” from bankrate.com explains the options for homeowners who wonder what might happen to their home, mortgage and loved ones, after they die.

When a homeowner dies, their mortgage lives on. The mortgage lender still needs to be repaid, or the lender could foreclose on the home when payments stop, regardless of the reason. The same is true if there are outstanding home equity loans or lines of credit attached to the property.

If there is a co-borrower or co-signer, the other person must continue making payments on the mortgage. If there is no co-signer, the executor of the estate is responsible for making mortgage payments from estate assets.

If the home is left to an heir through a will, it’s up to the heir to decide what to do with the home and the mortgage. If the lender and the terms of the mortgage allow it, the heir can assume the mortgage and make payments. The heir might also arrange for the property to be sold.

A sole heir should reach out to the mortgage company and discuss their options, after conferring with the family’s estate planning attorney. To assume the loan, the mortgage must be transferred to the heir. If the property is sold, proceeds from the sale are used to pay off the loan.

Heirs do not need to requalify for the mortgage on a loan they inherited. This can be a good opportunity for someone with bad credit to repair that credit, if they can stay current on the mortgage. If the heir wants to change the terms of the mortgage, they will need to qualify for a new loan and meet all of the lending institution’s eligibility requirements.

Proof that a person is the rightful inheritor of the property or executor of the estate may be required. The mortgage lender will typically have a process to specify what documents are needed. If the lender is not cooperative or balks at any requests, the estate planning attorney will be able to help.

If you own a home, it is very important to plan for the future and that includes making decisions about what you want to happen to your home, if you are too ill to manage your affairs or for when you die. You’ll need to document your wishes,

Reference: Bankrate.com (July 9, 2021) “What happens to your mortgage when you die?”

Can a Daughter Help Parents by Buying Home?

A daughter who has free cash from selling her own home and wants to protect her parents from the worry of dying with mortgage debt, asks if buying the family home outright, before the parents die, is the best solution. It’s a common situation, reports The Washington Post in the article “Daughter seeks to help parents with mortgage, credit card debt by buying their house.” Is there a right answer?

Lenders generally don’t demand the repayment of a residential mortgage loan immediately after the death of the owner. They will, however, call the loan if the borrower’s heirs fail to make mortgage payments. As long as the mortgage payments are made in a timely manner, the loan remains in good standing. If the daughter and her siblings are making these payments, this won’t be a problem.

Depending on how the home is owned, when one of the parents dies, the surviving parent will become the sole owner of the home, if they hold title as joint tenants with right of survivorship. The surviving parent also does not have to worry about the lender, as long as they continue to make the mortgage payments. When the surviving parent dies, then the three daughters inherit the home.

In 1982, the federal government passed the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act to protect spouses and children, when the owner of a home adds them to the property’s title. This law also prevents a lender from calling the loan due, when the owner puts the title into a living trust.

As long as the mortgage can continue to be paid, there’s no need to pay it off in full or to purchase the home so parents are debt-free. When they die, the daughter can pay off the remaining loan, if she can and wishes to do so.

The daughter also notes that her parents have credit card debt. If they die and cannot pay the debt, it will die with them. However, if they own a home when they die and there is equity in the property, the creditor will expect the estate to liquidate the asset and pay off the debt.

If one of the siblings wants to stay in the home, she could take over the property, making the monthly mortgage payments and find a way to pay off the credit card debt separately. Or, if the daughter who is asking about buying the home wants to, she can pay off the credit card debts.

From a tax perspective, buying the property from the parents while they are living doesn’t afford any advantages. Extra cash could be used to pay off the mortgage and the credit card debt, but again, there are no advantages to doing so, except for giving the parent’s some peace of mind. The cost of doing so, however, will be the daughter losing the ability to use the money for anything else.

One estate planning attorney recommends that the daughters inherit the home. When they die, tax law allows them to pass down a large amount of wealth—$11.7 million for an individual and $23.4 million for a married couple. The home would also get a stepped-up basis. The siblings would inherit the home with its value at the time of death of the surviving parent resetting the basis.

If the parents bought the home for $25,000 years ago and it’s now worth $250,000, the siblings would inherit the home at the increased value. The parents’ estate would not pay tax on the home, and if the sisters sold the house for $250,000 around the time of their death, there would be no capital gains tax due.

As the law currently stands, it’s a win-win for the siblings. When the parents die, they can decide how to divide the estate, if there are no clear instructions in a last will from the parents. They can use any extra cash, if there is any, to pay the mortgage and credit card debt, and split what’s leftover. If one sibling wants to own the home, the other two could get cash instead of the home.

The sibling who wants to keep the home should refinance the loan and use those proceeds to buy out the other two sisters. The siblings should sit down with their parents and discuss what the parents have in mind for the property. An estate planning attorney will help the family determine what is best from a tax advantage. Planning is essential when it comes to death, taxes and real estate.

Reference: The Washington Post (May 10, 2021) “Daughter seeks to help parents with mortgage, credit card debt by buying their house”

debts after death

What Debts Must Be Paid after I Die?

When you pass away, your assets become your estate, and the process of dividing up debt after your death is part of probate. Creditors only have a certain amount of time to make a claim against the estate (usually three months to nine months).

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Debt After Death: What You Should Know” explains that beyond those basics, here are some situations where debts are forgiven after death, and some others where they still are required to be paid in some fashion:

  1. The beneficiaries’ money is partially protected if properly named. If you designated a beneficiary on an account — such as your life insurance policy and 401(k) — unsecured creditors typically can’t collect any money from those sources of funds. However, if beneficiaries weren’t determined before death, the funds would then go to the estate, which creditors tap.
  2. Credit card debt depends on what you signed. Most of the time, credit card debt doesn’t disappear when you die. The deceased’s estate will typically pay the credit card debt from the estate’s assets. Children won’t inherit the credit card debt, unless they’re a joint holder on the account. Likewise, a surviving spouse is responsible for their deceased spouse’s debt, if he or she is a joint borrower. Moreover, if you live in a community property state, you could be responsible for the credit card debt of a deceased spouse. This is not to be confused with being an authorized user on a credit card, which has different rules. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney, if a creditor asks you to pay off a credit card. Don’t just assume you’re liable, just because someone says you are.
  3. Federal student loan forgiveness. This applies both to federal loans taken out by parents on behalf of their children and loans taken out by the students themselves. If the borrower dies, federal student loans are forgiven. If the student passes away, the loan is discharged. However, for private student loans, there’s no law requiring lenders to cancel a loan, so ask the loan servicer.
  4. Passing a mortgage to heirs. If you leave a mortgage behind for your children, under federal law, lenders must let family members assume a mortgage when they inherit residential property. This law prevents heirs from having to qualify for the mortgage. The heirs aren’t required to keep the mortgage, so they can refinance or pay off the debt entirely. For married couples who are joint borrowers on a mortgage, the surviving spouse can take over the loan, refinance, or pay it off.
  5. Marriage issues. If your spouse passes, you’re legally required to pay any joint tax owed to the state and federal government. In community property states, the surviving spouse must pay off any debt your partner acquired while you were married. However, in other states, you may only be responsible for a select amount of debt, like medical bills.

You may want to purchase more life insurance to pay for your debts at death or pay off the debts while you’re alive.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 2, 2020) “Debt After Death: What You Should Know”

inheriting a mortgage

What Do I Do If Property I Just Inherited Has a Mortgage?

Bankrate’s recent article entitled “Does the home you inherited include a mortgage?’ explains that when a family member dies, there can be questions about wills, inheritances and how best to settle financial affairs. It can be a stressful time, and complicated, especially when real estate is a part of the equation. Let’s look at some specific situations and how to address them.

Inheriting a mortgage. In many instances, a person will inherit both a home and the mortgage that goes with it. If that’s the case, ask for help from an attorney who specializes in elder law or estate planning. Even though the borrower died, the mortgage still must be repaid. Therefore, if you’ve inherited it, you’ll have to decide how the loan and property will be handled. If you move into the home, you may be able to assume the mortgage and continue paying it. You might also think about a cash-out refinance and pay that way. You can also sell the home. Heirs have a good deal of leverage dealing with a mortgage in an estate situation thanks to federal law, which can help them assume an existing loan. You should ask your attorney about estate taxes and capital gains taxes from a sale.

Assuming a mortgage. Typically, if you’re assuming the loan, the lender will be willing to work with you. Mortgages frequently have a “due-on-sale” or “due-on-transfer” clause that requires full repayment of the loan, in the event of a change in ownership. In certain estate situations, federal law prevents the lender from calling the loan, even if it has such a clause. Surviving spouses also have special protections to ensure that they can keep an inherited home.

Inheriting a reverse mortgage. If the home involves a reverse mortgage or a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM), your options vary according to the circumstances of the borrower who died. If you inherited a reverse mortgage from a parent, your options include the following:

  • Paying off or refinancing the balance and keeping the home
  • Selling the home for at least 95% of the appraised value; or
  • Agreeing to a deed in lieu of foreclosure.

There is a six-month window for the balance to be repaid. This can be extended, if the heir is actively trying to pay off the debt. If the reverse mortgage isn’t paid off after a year, the lender is required by HUD to begin the foreclosure process. This has negative connotations. However, it is a normal part of settling a reverse mortgage, once the last borrower or non-borrowing spouse passes away. If you’re a surviving spouse, and you’re on the reverse mortgage, nothing will change.

If the mortgage is underwater. If the value of the inherited home is less than the outstanding mortgage debt, the home has negative equity or is “underwater.” If the mortgage is a non-recourse loan (the borrower doesn’t have to pay more than the value of the home), the lender may have few options outside of foreclosure. The same usually applies for a reverse mortgage: the most that will ever have to be repaid, is the value of the home. The heirs are fully protected, if the home isn’t worth enough to pay off the entire HECM balance.

When there’s no will. If a borrower dies without a will, there will be more complications and expense when handling a home with a mortgage (or any other assets). Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney regarding your specific situation.

Reference: Bankrate (Oct. 22, 2020) “Does the home you inherited include a mortgage?’

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