Estate Administration: Opening estates of deceased property owners to transfer vacant property to new owners

Where a vacant property’s owner had died without a will and the estate remains unopened, the 2006 Redevelopment Authority Estate Administration Law(64) allows an estate attorney to open and administer the estate on behalf of a redevelopment authority. The purpose is to transfer title of the real estate to a new owner. To qualify, the property must be owned solely in the deceased owner’s name.(65)

What does it do?

If a decedent made no will, held real property in his or her name only, and had no heir or personal representative to open the estate, an attorney who practices estate administration may become the agent of a creditor to administer the decedent’s estate. As agent for a redevelopment attorney, the attorney may open the estate as early as 30 days after death to “return such property to productive use, and upon payment of fair market value of the property in its current state, to the estate.”(66)

How do we pay for it?

An estate attorney’s reasonable legal fees are included in the estate’s liabilities and are among the highest-priority items paid out of the estate. The attorney will be paid only after the real estate is sold.

What types of property are covered?

Property that is titled in the name of a decedent, where no one has been appointed to administer the decedent’s estate.

What challenges will it solve?

Someone who dies without a will often leaves his or her property “orphaned”—that is, it has not gone through probate, because no heir existed or because an heir had no reason to open the estate. Such properties may sit empty for years until they become tax delinquent and a taxing jurisdiction initiates a tax foreclosure action. Estate administration allows for earlier intervention after the owner’s death to prevent property deterioration and the narrowing of prospective purchasers.

Where does it apply?

Everywhere in Pennsylvania.

How does it work? What is needed to use this law effectively?

The redevelopment authority petitions the probate clerk and the county register of wills for letters of administration. If the letters of administration are granted, the redevelopment authority identifies and retains an interested estate attorney to perform the estate administration legal work, including a search for heirs, assessing assets and liabilities, and explaining to heirs that they may renounce the role of administrator but still receive estate assets, if any. Typically, an estate attorney will send letters to neighbors and family members, hold conversations with them, and review all mail sent to the estate, looking for assets and debts.

What policies and practices will increase our chances of successfully using this tool?

Because one goal of estate administration is to transfer the property of the deceased to a responsible new owner, the redevelopment authority may want to reserve its use to properties that have potential buyers.

What legal documents will we need?

An estate attorney must file appropriate documents with the probate clerk and county register of wills. The attorney’s legal work for a redevelopment authority is essentially the same as the work would be for an executor, an heir, or a creditor. Estate attorneys have the relevant Pennsylvania documents required to open an estate.

Who is using the tool now?

George J. Pettrone, Esq., as agent and counsel for the Wilkinsburg Redevelopment Authority in Allegheny County, completed several estate administrations that transferred real estate to a new owner. The legal documents he used are available in the online appendix.

How can we combine this with other strategies?

A municipality can use proactive and progressive code enforcement to ensure that when an estate is opened, the municipality can collect not only taxes owed but also municipal liens and claims for any code violations.

64, 20 Pa. C.S.A. § 3155, 3311; Act 171 of 2006.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.