Q: My mother died five years ago without a will. I have been paying taxes on my mother’s property ever since. The property is a large parcel of vacant land without any improvements.
I cannot find an attorney to take the case because it is not worth anything to them. The last attorney I spoke to told me that if I pay the taxes for four years in California, the property would be mine. The real estate tax assessor's office says the property must go through probate. They say they have never heard of this four-year rule.
If the government can take the property if the owner doesn’t pay real estate property taxes for three years, why can’t I put the property into my name after five years of paying the real estate taxes?
A: It is a good question and a sound argument, but it is not the way the law works. The government has an interest in receiving your tax payments, which it uses to fund roads, schools and other government activities. The government does all this on behalf of its citizens. For this reason, if a person does not pay the real estate taxes that are owed on a property, the government can go through a process to sell the property and use the proceeds to pay the unpaid real estate tax bill.
There is a different process to take care of "lost" properties: an adverse possession claim. Before we talk about adverse possession, let's talk about ownership rights and how they transfer.
You may have paid the taxes on the home for years, but that alone does not give you ownership rights. Many people pay real estate taxes for relatives without ever asking for or receiving ownership rights to the property. You could see how it would be unfair to help out a parent with the payment of real estate taxes and then claim that you own the home when in fact they own it.
So there has to be more to the four-year rule or any other rule similar to that one that would automatically grant ownership in some way. This brings us to adverse possession, which is a claim on a particular property a person makes against the rightful owner.
Let’s say you decide to move somewhere remote. You build your home, fence the property, pay the property taxes on that land, exclude others coming onto the land and make sure to tell everyone it is your land. In this instance, if you are able to stay on the land continuously for 21 years, you will have the right to file suit and have a court give you title to the property.
As you can imagine, doing all that takes time and money. In some limited situations, states have passed laws that allow people to claim the ownership to a piece of property when most of the elements of adverse possession are satisfied except for the 21-year period. We cannot tell you what your state specifically requires when it comes to adverse possession. For details, you will have to research the adverse possession laws in your state or hire an attorney who has experience dealing with these kinds of issues.
We suspect you will not satisfy all of the requirements necessary to claim ownership of the home by adverse possession. Your situation is much too common: You are a family member either helping another family member pay real estate taxes or paying the family member’s real estate taxes yourself.
On the other hand, you may be the legal heir to the property, even if your mother died intestate. All it might take is an estate attorney helping you go through probate to have the title transferred into your name. If you cannot afford an attorney, you might try a local legal aid clinic. If there are other heirs, you may be able to force a sale and get reimbursed for your out-of-pocket expenses.
If you find out you do qualify for adverse possession, please write us, and we will follow up with another column. Just remember, if you do qualify, you do not simply become the owner of the property. The title to the property has to go from your mother to you, and you will probably need a court to decree that and grant you ownership in the home.
Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact Ilyce and Sam through her website, ThinkGlink.com.