Case Study: Sibling House Squabble

Lucy’s* adult siblings have lived with their parents for years. Neither her brother nor her sister have contributed to paying the mortgage or the bills — they have simply lived free in their parents’ home.

Their father passed a while back, and their mother recently died with a Will so outdated, it does not comply with current law and the named executors predeceased Lucy’s mother. Lucy would like to be appointed to administer her mother’s estate, but her siblings are refusing to cooperate. The parents’ names are the only ones listed on the house’s deed and, under New Jersey law, the family home is an estate asset to be divided equally amongst all three siblings. Lucy would like to sell the house and divide the equity, but her siblings will not agree to the sale. In fact, they’re also refusing to move out of the house.

There are many reasons why siblings squabble over an estate. However, real estate — especially a family home — is often the culprit, we see. Between emotional attachments to the home or siblings not having the financial resources to move, decisions regarding what to do with real estate can create intense disagreements. These disputes cause delays in settling the estate and costly, stressful court battles between the siblings.

Once a judge appoints Lucy to administer the estate, what recourse does she have to force her siblings out and get the house sold? What should have been done in advance to avoid this issue?

Ejectment Actions

In New Jersey, the probate court does not have the power to make the siblings leave the house. Lucy’s only way to force her siblings to vacate the home is by petitioning the Superior Court for an order directing them to leave — called an ejectment action.

Different than an eviction, which usually involves a landlord-tenant contract, an ejectment procedure addresses removal of someone who is not a tenant. These can be people like Lucy’s siblings or even a live-in partner or friend who refuses to leave.

An ejectment action can take longer than the eviction process and requires more legal documentation. It’s not unusual for the unauthorized occupants to fight the ejectment proceedings. The goal, though, is the same as a landlord/tenant eviction: to gain a court order that names the rightful owner(s) and directing law enforcement to assume responsibility for removal of the occupants.

How to Avoid Sibling Squabbles Over Real Estate

Both the recession and the more recent COVID-19 pandemic have created historic highs of young adult children living with their parents. According to the Pew Research Center, one in four Americans aged 25 to 34 lived with their parents or older relatives as of 2021.

To avoid sibling disputes over real estate like Lucy experienced, parent homeowners should take the following steps:

  • Create an estate plan or update an old one. This ensures the parents’ wishes for their assets are clear and an executor is named to carry out the estate plan’s directions.
  • Consider joint ownership or tenants in common to dispel questions.
  • Explore the pros and cons of gifting the house to their children before death.

*Names have been changed to protect the client’s privacy.

Whether you need help settling a sibling dispute over real estate or creating an estate plan that will keep the peace in the family, you should work with an experienced and knowledgeable estate law attorney. Call us for a consultation.

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