Whose land is this?

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A few months ago we published a post about Mr. r&R’s Mom that really struck a nerve with our readers. We knew it would because the more we talk about money, the more we learn about people’s lives and the shared struggles we experience. Dealing with parents who have financial issues has been a recurring theme in these conversations so we knew others would see glimpses of themselves in our story.

We get asked for advice on what to do about Mom and Dad a lot and our standard response is …you just gotta talk it out. There is no easy answer because everyone’s family and financial situation is different. Believe us, if there is a one-size fit all solution, we certainly haven’t found it.

We’ve had brunches, dinners, sleep-overs, good ole fashioned Sunday drop-in’s and walks in the park, all with the underlying goal of better understanding their mindset, decisions and history with money. In the process, we’ve found some head-scratching familiar themes. In particular, the issue of record-keeping comes up quite a bit on both sides of our family.

It’s probably more appropriate to refer to the issue as a lack of record keeping. Now, a lot of these issues can be traced back to limited technology back in the day. But in other cases, it seems as if folks just let gaps in information linger longer than they should have because “that’s just the way it was back then“.

Look, we know we have the benefit of youth on our side and that our ambitions are sky high. But while we are soaring , we can’t help but acknowledge our ties to those who came before us. Rather than ignore it, we’re choosing to dig deeper, starting with land ownership. As far as we’re concerned…

the legacy of lost records, having little to pass onto future generations and financial insecurity in our golden years, ends here. Click To Tweet

Mr. r&R

My family is from Jamaica and as a child I would spend weeks at a time there in the islands countryside. The home I would normally stay in was owned by my grandmother (Celeste) and as the story goes, it was passed down to her by her father. Like many Jamaicans at the time, my mother and her siblings all immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities.

Naturally, this left my grandparents and a few cousins behind in Jamaica, many of who lived in “the house”. For the record, there is no such thing as a “Big Mama” in Jamaica but the sentiment is essentially the same. There was always a place to stay so long as Grandma was there, until she wasn’t anymore.

Jamaica, 1981ish.

My maternal grandfather and grandmother passed away in 1989 and 2003 respectively. After that, the story goes that my cousin lived in the house with his wife for a few years, the house fell into disrepair and would later be rented out to tenants. From what I understand, we’ve seen some tenants come and go, and today, we’re not fully certain who lives there or who collects the rent, if any. This is obviously a concern.

But the larger issue is how can we validate that my grandmother still has ownership rights to the house and the land? Did she ever really have it or are we all just assuming she did? Is someone collecting rent or are we dealing with squatters? Who would be liable if something were to happen on that land or in that house? My real-estate investor landlord brain is buggin’ out from all of these questions that nobody seems to have the answers to. What makes this more confusing is that everyone has seemingly just accepted it as normal…because it is.

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My Mom’s best friend [also Jamaican] has been fighting a similar battle over her parent’s former home for years. She’s had to fly there on several occasions for court visits and to file paperwork but til this day, there is still little certainty on how to officially gain control or ownership over land that was once owned by her parents and gained during a time of poor, lost or no record-keeping.

One of my best friend’s Mom [from the island of St. Kitts] is apparently one of the key people who manage homes, repairs and collect rent on the island and apparently, she keeps it all in her head. This is just fascinating to me, but I also wonder what might happen if/when something happens to her. Will my friend be the one flying back and forth from her home to clean up the mess?


Mrs. r&R

My family is from the great state of Texas where big trucks rule and brisket is king! Ever since I was a little girl, every year , we’d all head down to our family reunion in Kennard, or Hithcock, TX where my parents are from. We’d have a cookout, play spades, fight off mosquitoes and indoctrinate the youngest cousin into the family. Southern reunions and matching shirts go together like smoke and slow cooked beef ya’ll.

As we got older, this annual shindig became the big test for anyone wanting to introduce their significant other to the fam. If he or she could survive the small city life the way we did, then things just might work out between you two. Anywho, as I got older, parents became grandparents and naturally conversations about who is leaving the house to which cousin started popping up which is fine except…there weren’t a lot of details on paperwork. Without the documents, a written plan or will, you end up with family members who feel entitled to property and a bunch of unnecessary arguments.

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I’d hear stories about the deed being at the old old house but Daddy doesn’t have the key. Or “well you know such n such used to do all that but then he passed “. It’s amazing because when I talk to my friends, they all have the same stories about not really knowing how any of this stuff goes down but have a steady belief that it all just works out over time. Meanwhile, we’re over here making annual updates to our beneficiaries, getting life insurance and doing legacy planning. It’s bizarre but common.


Though uncomfortable, its always good to talk to your parents in detail about these matters. In our case, it lead to some remarkable stories, a handful of unsolved mysteries and lessons on international land ownership laws. Even though we don’t have the answers yet, it’s better to know these issues are unresolved now than to have them sprung on you while managing an ill parent or even worse, a funeral.

We weren’t exploring these old memories to see if there were hidden assets we could lay claim to, but we were curious to know whether there were systems or records in place when something happens.

If you have a Big Mama, Paw-paw or anyone else in your life that lives in a home that may have been passed on from a previous generation, we highly recommend doing some digging to make sure the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted.

Here are a few things to look out for

  • Unpaid property taxes (city, county, state etc.). Make sure you have saved copies of these documents saved somewhere secure
  • Delinquent fees or assessments- These could be lingering/attached fees that haven’t been paid over time and could trigger a legal claim
  • HOA’s- home associations change over time and based on our experience, most are not very good at keeping records over long periods of time. But this doesn’t mean unpaid bills just disappear.
  • Official record of the deed- Assuming a home is owned outright, be sure to have the official copy of the deed. Make a point to keep a digital copy where several others have access to it.

If there are other tidbits you’d like to add, please feel free to drop them in the comments section below.

10 comments

  1. Here are a few suggestions as my mother and uncle co-own land in Trinidad passed down from my great-great-grandparents. If the land has ever been surveyed, there should be a record of it. If the land has never been surveyed, get it done and on the books. Also, we have a legal representative to make transactions on behalf of my mother and uncle as they both do not live in Trinidad anymore. This is important in the event there are issues with rent collections, squatters etc…to have someone actively involved and legally mandated to act on your behalf. Finally, ensure that the property is clearly indicated in the will and/or trust documents of the current owners so that there is a record of it upon death. A lot of people may not even be aware that their parents own land elsewhere.

  2. If you’re unsure of who is the vested owner of the property, another way to find that out is by paying a closing attorney/title company to run a title exam (different states call them different things so you might have to do some state related research.) A title exam will tell you the last deed that was recorded for the property (who really owns it) as well as any liens on the property, unpaid taxes, open mortgages, an exam legal description (the borders on the property), etc. The cost is dependent on the company, but for reference a title exam at the law firm I work for is $150.

    Working for a real estate closing attorney, I have seen some serious issues arise because of “family houses”. Just because a family member has lived there for several years and has been paying taxes does not mean they legally own the property. The worst cases I’ve seen involve houses that are vested in deceased relatives, who died several years ago, and had no will. In that case we have to track down all legal heirs because they each technically own an equal percentage of that property- and they all have to be present for the closing. Even if we are just transferring the property to another relative. The best preventative measure to ensure the property stays in the family and that transfer goes smoothly – is making sure that the relative who owns the house has a will that names someone to be the executor of their estate and, ideally, names someone to be the owner of the house after their passing. Also, go through the hassle of getting a probate attorney after their death and probate the will. This is one of those times when it’s smarter to pay the professionals to do their job. Real estate law is different depending on the state you’re in – so keep that in mind. While I’m all for in-sourcing, I’ve seen too many DIY attempts gone wrong.

    Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer so my knowledge is acquired from working on the job and not legal advice! Also, I work in Georgia – so the law regarding real property and estates may be different if you live somewhere else.

  3. We don’t have any properties passed down on either side of my family (neither of my parents grew up with much), but I know hey have this sort of stuff in place now. As someone who works in the real estate / development industry, I can’t even fathom the process to try and get this sorted out. But it’s definitely good advice to dig into it before everyone who knows anything about it has passed away.

    • Yup. Well, now you get to change that and will have something to pass onto your kids!

      I can see how it all just gets lost in the shuffle of life. Hopefully we can prevent some hiccups before it’s too late.

      J

    • Thanks for sharing. We heard this was happening in South Carolina so good to know there are resources available for those who need to know how to protect themselves.

  4. Ooh, this is really good advice. I’d add another one – have frank and open conversations about how much the house is *actually* worth before the owner passes and the ownership is passed on to multiple siblings. Does it have major structural problems that bring down the worth? Etc. You can always bring in an assessor, but it’s better to be on the same page in the first place. Being proactive about this stuff can avoid so many problems and family resentments down the line. Great post!

    • Sooo true. I think the older generation just wants to pass something on..anything! Unfortunately, it can come in the form of headaches that aren’t worth nearly what they believe it is.

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