Bad titling leads to ground rent problem


June 25, 2000

Dear Mr. Azrael:

My husband died two years ago without a will.

The home had both our names on the deed, but because of some error, the ground rent, which we had redeemed about 20 years after buying the house, had only his name on it. I have had one lawyer who took my case but did nothing about it for over six months and kept putting me off. I now have another lawyer working on it but have heard nothing about it. No one seems to want to handle it.

I am an older woman and would like to get this cleared up. I couldn't even sell my modest home now, as I understand it. Could you explain why I am having such a hard time getting this cleared up?

Imelda Hart, Baltimore

Dear Ms. Hart:

Your letter presents another unfortunate result from bad titling of real estate.

When you and your husband redeemed the ground rent many years ago, the deed conveying the ground rent did not include both your names. As a result, from a legal point of view, the ground rent was owned by your husband alone. The leasehold property continued to be owned by you and your husband as tenants by the entirety.

The titling error could have been easily corrected at any time before your husband died. He could have signed a new deed to the ground rent, titling the property in both your names.

When your husband died, title to the leasehold interest in the property passed to you by operation of law as the surviving spouse. But, the ground rent is considered to be owned by your husband's estate. It is likely that the lawyer you hired to clear up the problem has filed papers with the local Register of Wills to open an estate for your late husband.

Once an estate is properly opened, a personal representative will be appointed. The personal representative has full legal authority to convey your husband's interest in the ground rent. A deed granting you title to the ground rent can be recorded as part of the administration of your late husband's estate. You will then own your home "in fee." The ground rent problem will be cleared up.

Frankly, I don't know why you're having a hard time resolving the ground rent issue. There may be other concerns involved in the administration of your husband's estate.

Rather then speculate, I suggest you make an appointment to meet with your current attorney and get a full explanation of the situation.

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