Determining who is entitled to property after owner's death


November 16, 2003

Some readers want to know who owns real property titled in the name of a deceased spouse, parent or other relative.

Assuming the property deed does not name people who have a right of survivorship, the property owned by a decedent is part of his or her estate.

A personal representative must be appointed by the register of wills to administer the estate and distribute property to the heirs who are entitled to receive it. Changing the name on the deed is an important detail if a descendant plans to sell the property.

If the property owner died and left a will, the real estate will pass to those people who are entitled to receive it. If the decedent died without a will, Maryland law distributes the property (real estate and other property) in the following priorities:

Surviving spouse: If there is no surviving child, grandchild or other direct lineal descendants - known in legal terms as surviving issue - and no surviving parents, the spouse receives the estate.

If there are surviving minors, the spouse receives one-half of the estate and the children divide the other one-half equally.

If there are no surviving minors but direct descendants, the spouse receives the first $15,000, plus one-half of the residue. The remaining one-half is divided into equal shares, which are distributed among surviving children and the surviving issue (as a group) of any deceased child.

If there are no direct lineal descendants, but a surviving parent, the spouse receives the first $15,000, plus one-half of the residue. The surviving parents receive the remaining one-half.

No surviving spouse: The entire net estate is divided equally among the surviving issue. The direct lineal descendants take "by representation," which means the children (as a group) of a deceased descendant receive the share of their parent.

For example, a mother dies without leaving a will. She had three children, two of whom are living and one of whom is deceased. The deceased child has three living children. The mother's net estate will be divided into three shares, one for each living child and one for the three children (as a group) of the deceased child.

No surviving issue: If the person dies with no surviving spouse or direct lineal descendants, the net estate is distributed to the surviving parents.

If there are no surviving parents, the estate is distributed to brothers and sisters. In the unusual case where there is no surviving parent or siblings, the estate is distributed to grandparents or their issue; and if none, then to great-grandparents or their issue.

If there is no surviving blood relative entitled to inherit the estate, it is divided among stepchildren. As a last resort, the estate is paid to specified state or county agencies.

Real property interests must be transferred by a deed, signed by the personal representative of the estate and recorded in the land records of the county where the real estate is located.

Expensive delays can result if a personal representative has not been appointed for a decedent. The heirs cannot convey good title to real property owned by a deceased relative.

An estate must be opened with the register of wills and a personal representative appointed. Only a valid, appointed personal representative has legal authority to convey title to a decedent's real property in Maryland.

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