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She paid off mortgage after her husband died. Should she worry that the lender hasn’t sent her the deed?

If you and your husband owned the home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, you automatically and legally became the sole owner of the home upon your husband’s death. You don’t need to do anything more at this time to prove ownership. (Dreamstime)

Q: My husband died a few years ago and had a life insurance policy. When I got the proceeds from the policy, I was able to pay off our home mortgage.

I never received the original deed from the mortgage holder, and querying the lender is getting me nowhere. I’m not sure what to do to protect myself against scammers.

Why can’t I get the deed to my house? When I search online, I keep getting websites that want me to pay for protection. And the lawyer who drew up the refinance passed away before my husband died.

Is there somewhere I can get a copy of my deed?

A: First, please accept our condolences on your loss. One of the reasons we recommend that both spouses and partners keep a hand in managing family money is to avoid painful quests like this one.

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But while your search for protection hasn’t been fruitful so far, the good news is you likely don’t have to worry about the ownership of the property. Typically, married couples own property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. When it comes to the primary residence, married couples will either own it as joint tenants or as tenants by the entirety.

In either case (joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenancy by the entirety), you became the sole owner of the home upon your husband’s passing. You wouldn’t need to do anything to the title to the property for you to become the sole owner of the home. It happens automatically because of the way you chose to hold title.

When you purchased the home, the settlement agent or seller’s attorney would have prepared the deed conveying the seller’s ownership in the home to you and your husband. That document stays in place and doesn’t change over time, even with your husband’s death.

If you and your husband owned the home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, you automatically and legally became the sole owner of the home upon your husband’s death. You don’t need to do anything more at this time to prove ownership.

When you decide to sell the home, you will simply need to show a copy of the death certificate to the settlement agent or title company to prove that you became the sole owner of the home.

If you want to check, look online at your local Recorder of Deeds office. If you look up the property, you should see that your name and your husband’s name are still on the title to the home. That’s quite normal. It doesn’t mean you don’t own the home on your own.

If you and your spouse happened to have a mortgage on the property at the time of your spouse’s death, you would now be entirely responsible for making those payments every month.

In most states, the mortgage lender has a lien on your home until you pay off the mortgage company in full. In your situation, you paid off the mortgage lender and the lender should have sent a release of the mortgage for recording or filing to the office that handles real estate documents in your county (typically, the Recorder of Deeds).

Keep in mind that your ownership in your home isn’t affected by paying off the loan. The loan and your ownership of the property are independent of each other.

Be aware that in some states, a lender takes a trust deed and not a mortgage as collateral for the loan. In general, a mortgage and trust deed work to provide the lender collateral and security for the homeowner’s loan. The one difference in the law is that the trust deed gives the lender custody of the title to the home until the loan is paid off. When a lender has a trust deed as collateral and the loan is paid off, the lender issues a release of the trust deed to give the property owner full rights to the property.

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In your situation, you simply need to make sure that your lender released the mortgage or issued the release of the trust deed. You would do that at the local Recorder of Deeds office. You might call them and ask if they can help you look up the relevant records. You might also be able to get this information online (some areas do charge for access, but the cost should be nominal).

Of course, if you and your husband did not own the home with rights of survivorship or as tenants by the entirety, that will require a different set of steps; particularly if he died intestate, without a will. But, if this is the case, you should find an estate attorney or a real estate attorney to discuss your ownership of the home, who else might now have an ownership interest and what steps you might need to take to determine what happens next.

Finally, your email mentioned that you’re worried about being scammed. The best thing to do is check your title from time to time, to make sure no additional liens have been attached to it. Also change your online passwords to two-step authentication, use a password manager, consider putting a credit freeze on your credit reports with the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) and never click on any email or link from someone you don’t know. Good luck.

Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (Fourth 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 them through her website, bestmoneymoves.com.

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