Philadelphia funeral homes will begin educating survivors about tangled property titles
Unclear legal ownership of properties threatens more than $1.1 billion in generational wealth in Philadelphia. Many residents don’t know they are living with tangled titles until a problem arises.
Funeral service providers in Philadelphia will be required to tell people how to avoid muddled legal ownership of a property after an owner dies, according to legislation City Council passed Thursday.
Unclear legal ownership of a property — also called a tangled title — makes properties vulnerable to deed theft and disrepair. It prevents residents from selling their homes, using their home equity, and qualifying for government help for home repairs. It threatens more than 10,400 homes in the city.
Tangled titles most often occur when homeowners die and their heirs do not record new deeds for the homes.
» READ MORE: Tangled titles in Philly threaten more than $1.1 billion in generational wealth
Many residents don’t know they are living with tangled titles until a problem arises.
Tangled titles threaten more than $1.1 billion in generational wealth in Philadelphia. Properties with tangled titles are more likely to be abandoned, contributing to blight in neighborhoods and lowering property values.
Residents need clear legal ownership to qualify for home repair grants from the city. Access to these grants is linked to a drop in crime, according to a University of Pennsylvania study.
Addressing tangled titles ”is one of the most monumental things we can do in the housing arena for individuals here in the city of Philadelphia,” said Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson, sponsor of the bill Council unanimously passed Thursday.
According to the legislation, the Philadelphia Department of Records and the office of the Register of Wills will create a tangled title information sheet or packet that will describe the necessary steps heirs should take after the death of a property owner to legally transfer the property and avoid a tangled title.
The information is to be available on the Department of Records website within six months of the mayor signing the bill into law.
» READ MORE: Unclear ownership impedes upkeep and sale of houses in Philly. The city is working on a solution.
Funeral service providers that will need to pass along this information include funeral homes and parlors, cemeteries, and crematoria. Those that do not provide information about tangled titles along with a death certificate to survivors within five days of funeral services are subject to fines of up to $300 for each offense.
Ervina White Beauford, a licensed funeral director and chief executive officer of Ervina White Beauford Funeral Service, which operates in West Oak Lane and Pottstown, said she spends a lot of time answering families’ questions about assets left behind.
“It would be awesome if I could provide families with an information sheet ... to prevent tangled titles,” she said. She said the legislation equips her with “a valuable tool.”
Tangled titles disproportionately affect Black residents, partly due to racial gaps in estate planning that transcend education, and they are barriers to closing racial wealth gaps. Areas with higher shares of tangled titles also are more likely to have large populations of people earning low incomes.
» READ MORE: Philadelphia home repair grants linked to decreased neighborhood crime, Penn study finds
Community Legal Services is one of the legal aid groups that helps low-income residents through the complicated process of untangling titles. Michael Froehlich, the group’s managing attorney of the home ownership and consumer rights unit, called the Council legislation “a smart solution to get ahead of these issues.”
“Funeral homes are expert in helping families navigate a highly emotional and complex situation,” he said. “And because funerals are often the time when families convene, it can be the best time to confer as a family about what to do with the family home, obtain signatures, and make a plan going forward.”
Register of Wills Tracey Gordon has made it her mission to spread the word about what she calls the “crisis” of tangled titles, speaking at community events, hosting webinars, and educating fellow elected officials. At a Council hearing in October, Gordon said that in addition to enlisting funeral service providers, she envisions an education campaign that includes billboards, bus advertisements, and curriculum in schools.
She and Department of Records Commissioner Jim Leonard partnered to create the city’s Probate Deferment Initiative pilot program that waives a few hundred dollars of fees and connects residents to free legal help as they work to clear up their properties’ ownership. For more information, residents can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three ways to tackle the tangled titles are to prevent them through estate planning, to resolve cases as they arise, and to educate the public about the importance of addressing tangled titles promptly, said Kelly Gastley, managing attorney at Philadelphia VIP, a nonprofit legal services agency that matches volunteer attorneys with clients who have tangled titles.
Tangled titles get increasingly complicated as more time passes after a homeowner’s death, she said, so the Council legislation “is an important step in proactively educating our community on tangled title and urging loved ones to deal with this when it occurs.”