When Tracey Gordon’s grandmother fell ill, the elderly Philadelphia woman made a decision. She preemptively transferred the deed to her home to her son — Gordon’s uncle — a move intended to spare her family an unnecessary inheritance dispute when she passed.
But then tragedy struck. Gordon’s uncle suddenly died without a will of his own, leaving the ancestral home under the legal ownership of a dead man. Her family retained a lawyer and, today, the Gordons are still resolving the home’s ownership, straightening out a so-called “tangled title.”
Tangled titles can lock a family out of their home or an inherited property, sometimes permanently. Without a clear title, families can find themselves robbed through deed theft, evicted by mortgage companies or unable to claim property passed down by a relative. The issue affects an estimated 22,000 Philadelphians, like Gordon’s family.
“Homeownership is supposed to be the American dream. But it can turn into an American nightmare,” Gordon said, of her own family’s struggles.
Particularly vulnerable are families without the money to afford so-called probate fees associated with transferring inherited property. Gordon’s empathy could now lead to big changes for many of these Philadelphia homeowners or their families. She pulled off a surprise win in last Tuesday’s Democratic primary against 40-year incumbent Ron Donatucci to take control of the Register of Wills, an obscure city office charged with collecting these fees. With no Republican opponent, she’s the odds-on favorite to take control of the office.
And probate fees “are one of the main reasons I ran for office,” Gordon said. “I don’t believe people should lose their homes over a fee. We have two or three generations living in a home they could be evicted from because of the title.”
The fees faced by many families are comparatively small, often running $400 to $500, but they can turn into a major financial barrier, according to Michael Froehlich, an attorney for Community Legal Services. He said many families living in poverty are not able to come up with the money needed to take legal ownership of the property so soon after a loved one has passed away.
“What often happens is a low-income heir will scrape together $3,000 or $4,000 to bury their loved one. Then they go to the Register of Wills to deal with ownership of the home and are told that there’s a fee,” he said. “So, they leave and, for a variety of reasons, they don’t come back. And the ownership of the home never transfers.”
But skipping out on that fee can end up causing big problems down the line for next-of-kin and major costs for the city, which funds legal aid groups, like CLS. Froelich says tangled titles can lead to inheritance disputes, difficulty establishing residency that can affect access to state aid and other problems that become costly legal quagmires.
Although probate fees are established by state law, Froehlich believes the Register of Wills could establish a fee waiver program for properties with low monetary value or establish a fund to internally pay off courts on behalf of indigent clients. CLS had lobbied Donatucci, the outgoing Register of Wills, on similar programs for years to little avail.
Froelich said in addition to fee waivers, his office has also lobbied the Register of Wills to take a proactive role in educating residents in poverty about the larger need for estate planning to avoid these issues.
“The big problem is people not establishing wills,” he said.
But Gordon says she’s receptive to both ideas. She would be, in some ways, an unlikely reformer. A former deputy city commissioner, she was fined by the ethics board for accepting tips in 2016 and she ran for Register of Wills without filing a campaign finance report.
The office itself is a relic of Philadelphia’s pre-1854 elected county government structure and has been targeted by government reformers for abolition for nearly as long. Reformers argue these “row offices” operate without much oversight from voters, are unaccountable to the mayor and, as a result, develop into nests for patronage and corruption. Donatucci, the outgoing Register of Wills, openly advocated for patronage hiring, bringing on political allies, committee people and ward leaders.
But Gordon said she’s committed to making the office more transparent. She said she plans to start by bringing on a team of experts together to craft policy around this issue with the express goal of making the city’s estate policies more “probate friendly.”
“I’m gathering lawyers and experts to advise me on this topic and bring Pennsylvania into the modern age,” she said. “We have a tangled title problem. But I think we can solve this problem.”