Back in 2008, Iris Henry was training brokers for the Vanguard Group in Malvern and living in a Mount Airy twin.
The house had belonged to her pastor husband when she married him 17 years earlier, but Henry had made it her own, redoing the floors, adding new windows, sprucing up the bathroom, and installing fresh landscaping.
She and her husband had a traditional arrangement in which he paid the bills. At first she was OK with that. But then, her husband, who also owned a barbershop, fell gravely ill and slipped into a coma. As he recuperated, she began going through his paperwork. To her surprise, she discovered that he was behind on many of his accounts. So Henry took over and began paying everything off.
Their situation got weird, though, after she learned that he had given power of attorney over his finances to another family member. It understandably became a big point of contention between husband and wife, and Henry began to suspect that something more sinister might be afoot.
After much back and forth, her husband finally relented and put Henry in charge of his finances. But their drama was far from over. I’ll spare you from some of it, but the important thing to know is that in the midst of some of this, Henry’s spidey sense went off.
"I went downtown for something else. I don’t remember what it was. While I was down there, something kept telling me, ‘Look at the deed, Iris,’” Henry recalled this week. “Because I was right there by City Hall, I went and looked at the deed.”
Her name had been removed.
“I went into a panic,” Henry recalled. “I was so angry and upset.”
She immediately got to work, getting her name added to the deed. Henry was able to complete the transaction just in time. Her husband died shortly afterward. As she grieved, Henry thought about everything that had happened and began sharing her experience with others.
“I found other people in similar situations shortly afterwards who had married someone who had a property,” she told me. “The person had kids, and when the person passed away, the kids came around and kicked the person out.”
Henry created Let’s See if We Can Help to help locals untangle deeds to properties and also assist with estate planning. The nonprofit hosts free workshops at various churches and libraries around the city, and literally takes estate attorneys and city officials to those in need. They help people with all kinds of problems, including those who think they might own a particular property but don’t.
“Everybody will say, ‘I own the house,’ but it was never changed from maybe the grandmother’s name,” Henry said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, my mother left me the house.’ No, the mother really didn’t leave you the house. … The house was never in her name so she could leave it. And then the family’s fighting over it.”
This happens more than people realize, particularly in neighborhoods where multiple generations inhabit the same residence.
I met Henry in 2012 when I was struggling with a complicated estate issue of my own. It was a beloved family property with five heirs and differing opinions as to its fate.
We became friendly, and several years ago, she asked me to participate in her annual fundraiser, “Dancing With the Stars," at the Commodore Barry Club ballroom. Since I’m not much of a dancer, I serve as a judge or mistress of ceremonies. I do it gladly. I also contributed $100 to her GoFundMe campaign.
Because what happened to Henry could happen to anyone.