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Property title program helps heirs keep homes in the family | The Homepage

By Ann Belser

An abandoned house in Hazelwood. Photo by Juliet Martinez

Irene Clark, an attorney for a nonprofit who has worked to help transfer titles to the survivors of deceased homeowners, knows how difficult and costly that transfer of generational wealth can be.

With lawyers, taxes and filing fees, transferring the title to a home is expensive.

But she also knows how costly it can be not to have a clear title to a home that needs repairs when banks won’t lend money for repairs or low-income families can’t obtain grants to repair what is not legally theirs.

Now Catapult, the nonprofit in East Liberty that is focused on helping disenfranchised communities, has started a new program to help families obtain clear titles to their homes.

The Clinic for Legal Equity and Repairs, or CLEAR, is a program to help families navigate the legal obstacles and even provide financial assistance to pay the costs of obtaining a clean title on a home. There is also some money for home repairs, so that the home in which the clients can stay, can be a safe one.

Outside of Catapult, most estate lawyers, Ms. Clark said, won’t even start helping a family without a retainer of $4,000.

Then there are the costs associated with death. Beyond the burial expenses, families pay for death certificates, at $20 each, to present to utilities and banks. If they try to transfer the title, the filing fee at the Recorder of Deeds is $181.75, an amount Ms. Clark knows by heart. The state will tax the inheritance at 4.5%, even if there isn’t any savings to pay it.

For most families, the home is their biggest investment that is passed from one generation to the next.

Ms. Clark had one client who was living on social security with a parent when his parent died. The house, valued at $30,000, was in the parent’s name without any debt, such as a mortgage or home equity loan. The son, in order to inherit the house, had to pay $1,350 to the state in taxes. He just did not have the savings to pay that much money in one payment, the way the Department of Revenue demands it be paid. The ultimate result was the son continued to live in the house, but did not get the title.

Under the Catapult CLEAR program, Ms. Clark said, he can be provided with the legal help and the financial help to move the title into his name.

Additionally, she said, some properties are subject to a claim by Medicare for nursing care after the property owner dies. There are ways to write the title before the property owner receives care, and hardship waivers for family members who lived in the home for two years and helped care for the property owner before death. However in some instances, the title cannot be changed without paying Medicare, either through the sale of the house or from the heirs who want to retain the house.

One indication of the need for the CLEAR program was that within a week of announcing it had opened, 21 people signed up, said Gabrielle DeMarchi, Catapult’s director of equity protection.

While CLEAR looks like a clear title program, she said, it is also a program designed to stabilize neighborhoods by saving homes from abandonment.

“What we see is people are walking away from these properties because they need repairs,” she said. Those abandoned properties then create neighborhood blight.

“People typically are reaching out for titles because they need home repairs,” Ms. DeMarchi said. “There are programs that provide money for home repairs, but you have to have clear title.”

She pointed out that without a clear title, families also cannot purchase insurance for the home, obtain a property tax abatement, or sell the property.

In addition to providing legal advice on titles and grants to help pay the fees owed, the program, she said, Catapult will provide legal help on wills, and the money to pay those costs and for some repairs.

Ms. DeMarchi, who is a social worker by training, worked in a similar program at Operation Better Block in Homewood, which focused on that neighborhood. This program, however, is open to all of Allegheny County, but prioritizing people over 62, caregivers of children 18 and under, veterans or widows of veterans, and people from disadvantaged communities. The program is also focused on disadvantaged communities, such as the city neighborhoods of Homewood, Larimer in the East End, the Central Northside, and communities such as Braddock and McKeesport.

The title issue, she said, “is definitely a widespread situation in the county.”

And for those whom the program can’t help, Ms. DeMarchi said, she will find them help, such as Neighborhood Legal Services, which also does the same sort of work.

“Still fill out the application, still call. We’ll talk to you and figure something out,” she said.

This article originally appeared in Print, the community newspaper serving the East End. It is shared with permission through the Pittsburgh Community Newspaper Network and has been edited lightly for style.

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