Annie Mrazik, Philadelphia VIP

As the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. While many of Philadelphia VIP’s low-income clients make a way without a will and testament, the path is much smoother with one.

Take the case of former VIP client, Mr. Preston (not his real name), who lived in his parents’ house in Overbrook for 19 years. Preston spent much of his time providing care for his parents and appreciated the stability a family home afforded them. His father and mother passed away without wills in 2003 and 2010, respectively. After their deaths, Preston continued to live in and care for the property, but could not reap the benefits of legal homeownership. He fell behind on the real estate taxes and had trouble entering into a payment plan, despite his willingness to do so. His home had been affected by water damage over the years, but, lacking legal title, he could not obtain a homeowners insurance plan to cover such damage. And when Preston attempted to secure a loan to fix the damage, he learned he needed title to do that as well.

After hitting roadblock upon roadblock in his efforts to attend to the home, he sought assistance from legal services. Preston’s only sibling, his older brother, predeceased their parents. With the help of legal services, Preston learned that his brother’s son had an interest in the property under intestate law. Preston’s nephew had never resided in the property and lived in South Carolina.

Situations like Preston’s are all too common for VIP’s clients. Many clients first come to VIP while living in and maintaining the house of a deceased relative or other loved one, with hopes of transferring title into their name. Often, they are already caring for the property as if it was their own: investing in maintaining and improving it; paying real estate taxes, utilities and other costs; and generally making it a home. For many, however, the length and cost of the title transfer process is a daunting barrier. As a result, many potential clients only proceed when navigating home occupancy seems impossible without homeownership. They may reach this point when they need to obtain homeowners insurance, access a loan to make needed repairs, or confront an unpaid mortgage.

When a homeowner does not leave a will designating a beneficiary of her/his real property, the way forward includes one of the most persistent barriers to the individual living in the property hoping to take title—engaging nonresponsive or uncooperative heirs. These heirs may not have spoken with the deceased record owner for years. They may live across the country and not want to become involved in the legal process, or they simply may not want to give up their interest in the house. While VIP’s client sees the financial and emotional investment he has put into the property over the years, the law sees family trees and intestate succession.

So, what can be done to prevent situations like these? A will can be the way.

When a record owner passes away with a will in place, a subsequent probate case for a VIP client takes a fraction of the time and has a greater likelihood of success.

When there is not a will, the probate and title transfer process can be drawn out, potentially for years. Time and resources are spent tracking down heirs, ensuring their cooperation, and, if they want to retain their interest in the property, producing a deed that includes them on title.

In the meantime, until title is secured, the client is not eligible for home repair assistance, weatherization programs, permanent payment plans for delinquent utility bills, and other supports.  As affordable housing options dwindle, with gentrification impacting more and more neighborhoods, clients with limited resources may have no choice but to remain in a house with a leaking roof and drafty windows during the protracted process of securing legal title.

The homes of VIP clients typically have appraised values between $50,000 and $200,000. For properties in this range, the probate and deed transfer process usually entails out-of-pocket costs between $500 and $3,500—no small amount for a family with household income at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines ($50,200 annually for a family of four), VIP’s income limit. Another advantage to having a will in place is that the testate successor is exempt from paying property transfer taxes, no matter the familial relationship, or lack thereof, with the deceased.

Once Preston was paired with a VIP volunteer attorney in September 2017, their first step was to reach out to Preston’s nephew in South Carolina. After months of failed efforts to make contact, “Mr. Preston was thinking that he would just drive down to South Carolina,” his attorney recalls. Thankfully, the nephew responded, sparing Preston a long drive, and mailed them the needed documents both for Preston to administer the mother’s estate and to convey the nephew’s interest in the property to Preston. A deed giving Preston full title was recorded just a few months later.

VIP is committed to helping guide our clients and volunteers through the probate process, no matter how tangled and complicated a case may be. However, we hope to reduce the incidence of difficult, prolonged, and, at times, unsuccessful probate processes by equipping our homeowner clients with wills.

Philadelphia remains a majority home-owning city, but while its 52.6 percent homeownership rate exceeds that of other large cities, it was closer to 60 percent a decade ago. Furthermore, 38 percent of our city’s homeowners have household incomes below $35,000. The family home is often the primary means of transferring and growing intergenerational wealth. It can protect subsequent generations from sky-rocketing rents, enables access to programs and supports geared at housing preservation, and contributes to stable, close-knit neighborhoods.

In Preston’s case, the importance of a will came to light far sooner than anticipated. Preston was diagnosed with lung cancer this spring and passed away six months later. Before his passing, his volunteer attorney prepared a will in which Preston left the family home to his daughter. Despite the immense pain of these circumstances, Preston showed great strength in ensuring his family had one less barrier to navigate following his death. He was relieved and thankful to have, through his will, paved the way for multi-generational ownership of the family home.

VIP has clients with homes in need of wills right now. With our comprehensive estate planning templates and training materials, volunteering to draft a will for a homeowner has never been easier. While preparing estate planning documents can be a simple undertaking for an attorney, the peace of mind and stability it brings to our clients and their families is significant and long-lasting.  Please step forward to draft essential estate planning documents for a VIP client by visiting www.phillyvip.org/case-listings/ today.

Annie Mrazik is a pro bono case manager at Philadelphia VIP. She works directly with clients to prepare their legal cases for representation and to match them with pro bono attorneys. Mrazik also administers the Tangled Title Fund. She is a 2015 graduate of Saint Joseph’s University with bachelor’s degrees in international relations and Spanish. She can be reached at amrazik@phillyvip.org.