Goodspeed: The delicate situation of inheriting a family home
QUESTION:My sister and I lost our mother several months ago. She left her house to the two of us equally. My sister lives in the house. I have my own place. I want to have her either buy me out or sell the house and split the proceeds equally. She can’t afford to buy me out, but doesn’t want to sell the house either. What can I do? This is not fair to me. I own half of that house but cannot access it. Can I take her to court to force her to sell the house?
ANSWER: I don’t think taking your sister to court is the way to proceed here. First of all, it will be very expensive, take a long time and probably permanently destroy your relationship with your sister. This is a delicate situation and should be handled delicately. Serving her with a lawsuit is not delicate. It’s more like a sledge hammer.
You need to consider that your sister may still be mourning your mother, especially if she lived with her and cared for her. She also likely has a strong attachment to the home, and as you say, cannot afford to buy you out.
Her situation sounds quite precarious, both emotionally and financially. And it probably doesn’t help her feelings of grief and insecurity to know you are pushing her out of the home. At the same time, half of the house is your inheritance. So how should you proceed?
First of all, you should try to find out what the home is worth. Check the tax rolls, get an appraisal, talk to a local real estate agent about the home and what it would likely fetch if you were to sell it. How much is owed on the mortgage, if anything. What about the contents? How much would an estate sale bring? How much would each of you likely net out after the sale of the home?
Once you have some facts in hand, you and your sister should sit down to talk about your options. I suggest having a third party facilitator at the meeting. This could be a therapist, housing counselor or some other party your sister trusts.
You say your sister cannot afford to buy you out, but she needs to know how much she might net out from selling the home and what other housing options might be available to her. With any luck, there will be enough cash from the sale to allow your sister to move on and find another home or apartment to rent.
On a more delicate note, she also needs to confront her emotions about the house and your mother’s passing and the major change of moving on. You are facing a tough situation. You need to get as many facts as you can and recognize all that your sister is going through and reach out to her. Good luck.
Linda Goodspeed is a longtime real estate writer and author of “In and out of Darkness.” Email her at: email@example.com.