When a parent, spouse or loved one dies – what do you need to know or do about the house?

Death and Real Estate - Dealing with a Property after A Loved One DiesWhen a parent, spouse or loved one dies and he or she owned a home, there’s a lot for the survivors to do in addition to the very real and painful process of mourning. I have been through this with my own parents (and their house in Saratoga), a great aunt in Willow Glen, and many clients in San Jose, Los Gatos, Palo Alto, and elsewhere in Silicon Valley.

Quick summary of what to do regarding the home first and soon when a loved one dies:

  1. Engage the help of of an attorney and tax professional within the first 30 days or so. Sometimes there are deadlines or goal dates that will help the beneficiaries, and if people take too long to connect with these professionals, some opportunities may close.
  2. Some attorneys are also tax professionals, but most likely these will be different people.
  3. A professional valuation of the home will be needed, usually done by a licensed appraiser, but sometimes a real estate professional can do a market analysis that is acceptable. The home does not have to be empty or cleaned out to have this done.
  4. If you need the names of good tax and legal professionals, feel free to reach out to your real estate agent (or to me, if you are local). Most of us have worked with trust situations and can provide names. Or ask friends and family who’ve recently gone through the same situation and were happy with the people that they hired.
  5. You will need several copies of the certified death certificate. Discuss how many with your tax and legal professional. If you sell or transfer the home, the title company will need it and it will be recorded with the county.

Death, dying, & real estate: where to begin when a loved one dies?

In terms of settling the estate, it is wise to first speak with an attorney and tax professional about the property to find out what is required and advisable.

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Why Good Realtors Refer Buyers and Sellers to Lawyers and Tax Professionals for Some Questions

There are a number of things which are related to the purchase and sale of real estate which require the professional guidance of those other than your Realtor, namely a legal or tax professional.  This sometimes surprises consumers.  Once I was discussing one of these areas with a prospective client and she felt quite frustrated and exclaimed, “you know the answer, you just won’t tell me!”  That was many years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it.  Many Silicon Valley home buyers and home sellers assume that they’ll never need to talk to a tax or legal professional, and if advised to do so, may balk.

So let’s talk about it.

In other states, such as New York, attorneys are very involved in real estate transactions. Here in California, though, that’s not the case most of the time.  We call on CPAs and lawyers when there’s a problem or a question which is beyond the real estate licensee’s scope.  I’ll provide a few examples.

Holding Title: Probably the most frequent question I get that I’m not allowed (or qualified) to answer is about how people should hold title when buying a home.  The purchase agreements we use (both CAR and PRDS) lay it out best and puts it in bold so that consumers don’t miss it:

“THE MANNER OF TAKING TITLE MAY HAVE SIGNIFICANT LEGAL AND TAX CONSEQUENCES. CONSULT AN APPROPRIATE PROFESSIONAL.” (newest revision of the CAR contract, April 2010)

Most title companies have a nifty little chart that summarizes the pros and cons of the various ways in which people can hold title.  But neither the escrow officer nor the real estate agent can tell you what’s best for you.  We know what’s most common, but that doesn’t mean it is best for you and your particular set of circumstances.  So talk to a CPA or talk to a lawyer (or both) if you do your research and are at all unsure of what to choose! (Old Republic Title has a summary of the most common ways to hold title in a downloadable pdf file, which you can access via this link.)
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