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Settling Estates After a Disaster

Protecting the Home for the Family

Disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, Laura, and Winter Storm Uri cause loss of life. Also, with several million cases and nearly 50,000 deaths across the state from COVID-19, Texas probate courts will be grappling with the effects of the pandemic for at least the next several years. The families of most of those who lost their lives will need to do some type of legal work to settle the estates of their family members, and attorneys will be critical in ensuring that this work is completed.

Why is title clearing important? 

For many Texans, the largest asset that they will have when they pass away is their home. Title clearing can help ensure that the home is protected both for generational wealth-building and, more importantly, for preventing homelessness for an heir hoping to live in the home left by their family member. Without a clear title, other heirs may try to force a sale of the home; property tax issues are more likely to arise, and if the house is damaged or in need of repair, the heir may not be able to get a loan to make those repairs. 

For families where the decedent has left a will, that will may need probate to settle the estate and clear the title. Many Texans either are unaware that the will does not automatically transfer the title or cannot afford the legal costs of probating a will. These individuals may not realize that they do not have a clear title to their home until they are asked to show it, at which point the will may be difficult or impossible to probate. 

For some families where the decedent has not left a will, intestate succession may pass the property to only one or two heirs, and the estate can be settled with no conflict. However, as those familiar with title clearing know, property inherited through intestate succession still requires legal work of some type to show who the heirs of the decedent are. Like families who do have wills, people in this situation often think the transfer is automatic until they need to show they have a title.

How Can Attorneys Help?

  1. Probate Wills and Clear Title

Assisting individuals with probating wills or alternative title clearing methods can be simple, with outsized effects on the family’s lives. For attorneys whose practice area is not wills and estates, you should, of course, ensure that you have the competency needed to work a case before you take it, and if any issues occur, be sure to reach out to mentors and other help available. However, many simple title matters may be resolved by attorneys with minimal wills and estates training. Settling the estate in a timely fashion can prevent individuals from requiring an expert for a complex title clearing matter. 

  1. Estate Planning

Drafting wills and transfer on death deeds (TODDs) is an even easier way to assist with this legal problem. For individuals whose main asset is their home, estate planning may be very simple. Most agencies screen to ensure that you are getting the more straightforward cases. You may complete the estate planning documents in only a few hours. 

Get in touch with the legal aid and bar associations in your area to find opportunities for training and volunteering for title clearing and estate planning. 

Hannah Dyal, Staff Attorney/EJW Disaster Recovery Program, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid