The tragedy that struck the residents of the 200 block of Tree Street had many causes, as detailed in our article last month. Drug addiction and criminality played a role, as did the Department of Licenses and Inspections’ seeming inability to enforce the law. But even before those issues reared their heads, the safety and tranquility of the block was threatened by a problem that affects more than ten thousand city properties: tangled title.
As we discussed in that article, the trouble on that previously orderly and safe block began when the owner of 223 Tree Street, Eileen Begley, died suddenly in late 2018. She lived alone and had one known son, Steven, who himself was dealing with many problems of addiction and criminality. After his mother’s passing, Steven did what many presumed heirs do: he moved into the property and just started living there.
No probate, no estate administration, and no deed transfer, just living in a house that, as far as the city knew, still belonged to his mother. In fact, according to city records available online, it still does belong to her nearly four years later.
This situation is known as a tangled title: where someone lives in a house that they likely have a right to own, but for which the title is still in the name of someone who died years earlier. Many people are not aware of the legal formalities required for property transfers at death, and others know about them but wish to avoid the time and expense of going through the process.
This situation is known as a tangled title: where someone lives in a house that they likely have a right to own, but for which the title is still in the name of someone who died years earlier.
Just continuing to live there is good enough — until it isn’t. And the longer things sit like that, the harder it is to untangle them.
According to a 2021 study by Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphia has “at least 10,407 tangled titles,” or about two percent of all residential properties in the city. The true number may be much higher.
Since her election as Philadelphia’s Register of Wills, Tracey L. Gordon has been focused on helping Philadelphians fix these problems and encouraging them to avoid them in the first place, where possible.
Tangled title is most obviously a problem when trying to sell a house. But it also comes into play when trying to get insurance on a home or gain access to existing city programs that are designed to help poor homeowners maintain their properties. Someone living in a house with a tangled title may do just fine for a while, but as soon as something goes awry, all of the legal safety nets — everything from private insurance to government benefits — falls through, too.
But the problems go beyond even these.
With homes that are as close together as they are in cities, what happens to one house can easily spread to another. We saw that most tragically in the fire on Tree Street, where the flames from one row home damaged many others. But as Register Gordon told Broad + Liberty, even less dramatic decline in a home can damage the entire block.
Speaking of the fire at Tree Street and Steven Begley’s death, Gordon said “not only did this affect his generational wealth — and his life — but now it is affecting the generational wealth, health, and welfare of the block. Of the neighborhood. Of the city.”
Her words get some of the basic facts of city life: while we can build dense, strong communities in urban settings, we also are forced to depend on each other more. The fire safety of a house that sits alone on five acres is of no one’s concern but the people who own it, but fire — or flooding, or infestation — in a row home or twin home quickly travels to the neighbors’ houses and becomes their business, as well.
The best way to avoid the problem, Gordon says, is to make a will. “Plan, prepare, protect,” she says. People fear the expense of a lawyer, but even a simple, handwritten will is valid in Pennsylvania. If it is witnessed and notarized, it is easy to probate, as well, though that is not a requirement.
Once titles become tangled, straightening them out again is more difficult but not impossible by any means. The Register of Wills office’s Probate Deferment Initiative waives or defers many of the fees associated with probate, and their staff has already helped several people get their affairs in order. While their budget to untangle titles is limited, they hope for more funding from City Council to help more homeowners get out of legal entanglements and gain title to the homes they are legally entitled to possess.
Last year, City Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson introduced legislation to help prevent tangled titles by requiring funeral homes to educate heirs of the recently deceased about the probate, using information to be jointly provided by the Department of Records and Register of Wills.