Suing Over 'Abandoned' Real Estate

Ginny: My sister inherited 75 percent of a home from our paternal uncle years ago and his wife’s niece inherited 25 percent. The niece was also willed the furniture in the home, but she never retrieved her belongings even when a legal document was written for her to remove all furniture by a specific date. The house hasn’t been occupied since my uncle expired, and the niece hasn’t been heard from in many years.

The house is located in my sister’s hometown, while the niece lives in another state and has never been involved in the home’s upkeep. My sister spends her hard-earned money on the house paying real estate taxes, lawn maintenance, etc., and does not want to sell the home or buy out the niece. Currently, the house is in need of a lot of repairs.

Can my sister sue the niece for abandonment of property? Does this have to go to court? If so, do you think Legal Aid can assist, as my sister has a limited amount of funds? If my sister stops paying the real estate taxes, she would lose the house. The niece doesn’t deserve the house due to her neglect and abandonment. — Steve H., Santa Fe

Steve : As for the furniture, I would consider it abandoned, and your sister can do with it as she pleases. She can use it, sell it or donate it to a charity.

But as for the house, unfortunately, the niece owns one quarter of the house. The only way that your sister can resolve the issues is to file suit against the niece. Your sister can ask the court to require that the niece either reimburse your sister for one-quarter of the expenses she has incurred or convey her interest directly to your sister in exchange for not making any payments.

Keep in mind that your sister owns a larger portion of the property and is legally obligated to pay her share of the expenses — including real estate taxes, insurance and maintenance.

I seriously doubt that any Legal Aid program will be able to provide free legal services to your sister. My experience is that when a person has an interest in real estate that has value, Legal Aid programs generally are not permitted to assist. It is different, of course, when a person’s home is about to be foreclosed upon, but your sister’s situation is not that serious.

You state that your sister does not want to sell. While I appreciate this, the fact is that the house has been vacant for many years, and is a financial burden on your sister. I assume it has some value, so why not ask the niece if she will agree to sell the house? Then your sister will be able to recoup — through the sales proceeds — the moneys she has already spent.

But keep in mind that in most states, there are statutes of limitation. This means that if a lawsuit is not brought after a certain number of years (often three or five), your sister would be able to be reimbursed only for expenses incurred within the statutory period, but not for expenses that go beyond the statutory period.

Hopefully, when the niece sees that she might get some money from the sale — or at least will avoid lengthy and costly litigation — she might be finally willing to cooperate.

Otherwise, your sister might be able to find a lawyer willing to take the case on a contingency-fee basis. This means that the lawyer — if successful — would get between one-quarter and one-third of any moneys recovered.

But, while some attorneys may be willing to take a contingency on the sale of the house (since that would generate money), I seriously doubt they would accept such a case only to sue the niece for reimbursement.

I strongly suggest you convince your sister that it makes sense to sell the house.