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Will Decedent’s Rent Houses be Lost to the State?

Dear Mr. Premack: I had an elderly friend who owned seven rental properties. She died in early 2007 without a Will and has no known legal heirs. The properties are vacant and the taxes have not been paid since her death and will soon go to the state of Texas. Is it legal for me to apply to be the Administrator of her estate in order to protect her properties by paying the taxes and then selling them? How much will it cost me?  Thank you very much for your help. – G.E.W.

Texas law allows any “interested person” to apply to become an estate’s Administrator, which at first impression sounds hopeful for you. But in fact, you face two legal obstacles to becoming Administrator. First, the Texas statute defines “interested person” as including only “heirs, devisees, spouses, creditors, or any others having a property right in, or claim against, the estate being administered”.

Since you say there are no legal heirs, you admit that you are not an heir. There is no Will, so you are not a devisee. You describe yourself as a friend, so you are neither the decedent’s spouse nor a creditor of the decedent. Again, as a friend, you have not claimed that you have a property right in her estate or a claim against her estate. You want to help settle a situation that you find unacceptable, but since you are not an interested person as defined by law you are not legally authorized to take the actions you desire.

Second, you say that your friend died in 2007. Texas law allows the court to appoint an administrator for her estate only if 1) the court action takes place within four years of the date of death, or 2) even after four years, if the court action is needed to recover or receive funds which are due to the estate. In your situation, the estate owes taxes, but there is no hint that money or property is due to the estate. Thus, the four-year limit on appointment of an administrator also bars you from taking the actions you desire.

You cannot become administrator of the estate, but you still desire to know what will happen to the rent houses that your friend owned. You think that they will “go to the state of Texas”, a legal process known as “escheat.” You are probably correct. The county may take judicial action to foreclose on its lien for unpaid property taxes, or may file a petition for escheat in the District Court. Under the Texas law, if the court finds that your friend died intestate and without heirs, title to her houses is treated as though it passed to the state on the date of her death.

Note of Interest: Many people are becoming more reliant on “the cloud” to track and store information (like photographs, documents and emails). Legal scholars are aware that your valuable information is often left to the whim of the companies who operate the cloud services. Google, as one of the largest providers of cloud storage, has recently announced a new policy regarding “inactive accounts” (which can mean the account of someone who died). Their new settings allow you to decide on a grace period during which they will treat your account as active, even if you have not accessed it. If the grace period is passed, they will first try to contact you at the addresses you provide to them, and will notify the “trusted contacts” you provide to them. If no action is taken, you can tell Google to delete your account and all information in it. Do an internet search for “google afterlife account manager” to set up your own preferences.

Paul Premack is a Certified Elder Law Attorney and a Five Star Wealth Manager (Texas Monthly Magazine 2009-2012) practicing estate planning and probate law in San Antonio.

Original Publication: San Antonio Express News, April 22, 2013


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