Why Have Funeral Homes Started to Educate Survivors about Problem Property Titles in the City of Brotherly Love?

S_ul0031-0335Unclear legal ownership of properties threatens more than $1.1 billion in generational wealth in Philadelphia. That’s because many people there don’t realize they’re living with tangled titles, until a problem comes up. Funeral service providers in Philadelphia will now be required to inform families how to avoid muddled legal ownership of a property after an owner dies, according to legislation recently passed by that City Council.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s recent article entitled “Philadelphia funeral homes will begin educating survivors about tangled property titles” explains that unclear legal ownership of a property (also known as “tangled title”) makes properties vulnerable to deed theft and disrepair. This also keeps residents from selling their homes, using their home equity and qualifying for government help for home repairs.

Tangled titles most frequently happen when homeowners die, and their heirs don’t record new deeds for the homes. Properties with tangled titles are more likely to be abandoned, contributing to blight in neighborhoods and lowering property values. As a result, addressing tangled titles ”is one of the most monumental things we can do in the housing arena for individuals here in the city of Philadelphia,” said Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson, sponsor of the bill.

According to the legislation, the Philadelphia Department of Records and the office of the Register of Wills will create a tangled title information sheet that will describe the steps heirs should take after the death of a property owner to legally transfer the property and avoid a tangled title. Funeral service providers, such as funeral homes and parlors, cemeteries, and crematoria, must also pass along this information. Those that don’t provide information about tangled titles along with a death certificate to survivors within five days of funeral services are subject to fines of up to $300 for each offense.

One licensed funeral director says she spends a lot of time answering families’ questions about assets left behind. “It would be awesome if I could provide families with an information sheet … to prevent tangled titles,” she said. She said this legislation equips her with “a valuable tool.”

A proponent of the bill said that “funeral homes are expert in helping families navigate a highly emotional and complex situation. Because funerals are often the time when families convene, it can be the best time to confer as a family about what to do with the family home, obtain signatures and make a plan going forward.”

Three ways to tackle the tangled titles are to prevent them through estate planning, to resolve cases as they arise and to educate the public about the importance of addressing tangled titles promptly.

Reference: The Philadelphia Inquirer (Dec. 2, 2021) “Philadelphia funeral homes will begin educating survivors about tangled property titles”

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