The Lead

In Philly, PSA campaign hammers home importance of a will to family inheritance

By: - July 16, 2022 6:30 am

Philadelphia Register of Wills Tracey Gordon. There are 10,000 tangled titles in Philadelphia County, Gordon said, citing research by the Pew Charitable Trusts (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Stephen Williams

PHILADELPHIA —  The city’s Register of Wills office has launched a series of public service announcements (PSAs) on radio stations and the web and is waiving or deferring fees associated with probate court, to help residents with the problem of “tangled titles.”

A tangled title happens when a person lives in or has a right to own a home but does not have a deed or title to the home with their name on it. This can happen when a relative dies without a will or the deed was never transferred to the person living there.

“The most important thing we want people to understand is making a written will and probate are necessary to fix tangled titles,” Register of Wills Tracey Gordon said in a Tribune interview. “The main message is the importance of making a will, when you get an asset.”

As part of the process, a written will must be filed with the Register of Wills office and go through probate. In the probate process, a will is verified by a court of law and deemed a valid public document and a true last testament of the deceased, or settlement of their estate.

According to a 2021 study by Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 10,000 homes have tangled titles in Philadelphia, mostly concentrated in North, West and Southwest Philadelphia, where many Black and brown people live. An estimated $1 billion in generational wealth is tied up by tangled titles.

In Philadelphia, tangled titles are derailing home-buying dreams

In one PSA, a “grandson” is urging a reluctant “grandmother” to complete her will. In another, a family is trying to come to grips with the death of a relative who didn’t have a will.

According to Gordon, her office hired more than a dozen Screen Actors Guild union members for the PSAs, which will run through April 2023 on WURD 900-AM, Power 99 FM and all social media platforms, such as TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

“We completed a deal with the Dell East and these PSAs are going to run at intermission of the concerts this summer,” Gordon said.

One-third of the PSAs are in Spanish, because tangled titles tend to be in areas where many people speak only Spanish, Gordon said.

Other problems associated with tangled titles are that they can prevent residents from selling their homes, transferring the deed to their heirs, or getting government assistance for repairs, back taxes, utility bills or even from FEMA in case of a natural disaster.

Many of these factors have resulted in people losing their homes.

Resolving a tangled title can be tedious, time consuming and expensive, according to the Pew Charitable Trust study. The problem typically affects people in neighborhoods with high poverty levels and low housing values.

So Gordon’s office is waiving and deferring many of the fees associated with the probate process for low- and moderate-income families as part of the office’s Probate Deferment Initiative.

Fees are related to the size of the estate, but even the lower end can be as much as $300 to $500, and that is not counting legal fees.

In addition, the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development has a Tangled Title Fund that provides grants up to $4,000 to income-eligible residents seeking to clear titles to their homes, for administrative, legal and other costs.

But the household’s income cannot exceed 200% of the federal poverty income levels. In addition, the home must be the applicant’s primary residence, or the applicant must plan to make the home their primary residence.

The Register of Wills office has a responsibility to protect generational wealth. The office processes marriage licenses, maintains historic records, and deals with probate estates and other issues.

“In Philadelphia, you transfer your wealth by leaving a written will,” Gordon said. “It’s not an automatic transfer and it’s not a transfer that you can do verbally. It’s not a transfer that you can do by video.”

Stephen Williams is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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