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posted: 12/14/2012 5:39 AM

Prospective heir has trouble finding late mother's assets

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Talking about "final wishes" can be tough, but failing to do so can create more problems later.

Q. My mother passed away three months ago, leaving behind a house with a mortgage that is fully paid and some other assets. The problem is that we never discussed her wishes for her estate because it made us both feel uncomfortable, and I don't even know if she had a written will. How can I find out what's going on with her property, and how it will be disposed of?

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A. I'm sorry for your loss. If your mother made a will before she died, her executor would have been required to make an earnest effort to find you. Whether he did or he didn't, the bottom line is you have not been contacted, and you have the legal right to know what is happening with her home and other assets.

To find your mother's executor or lawyer, start by talking with your relatives, her close friends and neighbors. Her accountant or stockbroker also should be able to help, assuming you can get their names and phone numbers. Her doctor and even the funeral home that handled her burial arrangements might have some useful information, too.

Also check with the probate court in the county where your mother last lived. If a will or any other legal paperwork has been filed, the documents are now a matter of public record and you have a right to get copies. But if none of these efforts prove fruitful, you may need to hire a private investigator or attorney of your own.

Good luck on your search. I hope your letter will encourage others to talk about their final wishes with their loved ones, regardless of how difficult or uncomfortable such conversations can be.

Q. Is it true that a bunch of lenders have agreed to stop all of their home foreclosures?

A. Yes, but the stoppage will last only for a few weeks.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-sponsored agencies that own about half of all mortgages in the U.S., recently said they will stop all foreclosure and eviction proceedings against single-family homeowners between mid-December and Jan. 2. Other lenders, including banking giants JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, have announced similar plans.

Although the ban won't last for long, it will permit owners who are seriously behind on their payments to have one more holiday season in their current homes -- and also allow bankers to avoid the bad publicity that results from news coverage of families being kicked to the street at the most joyous time of the year.

Q, My sister, brother and I are putting up $20,000 each to buy a really nice home in our area. Is it possible for us to take title as joint tenants, even though the three of us are (obviously) not married to each other?

A. Yes, the three of you can take title to the home as joint tenants. There is no limit on the number of people who can be added to a property's title, although only those who signed the loan application can be pursued by the bank for repayment if the mortgage turns sour.

If you, your sister and brother take title as joint tenants, each of you will own a one-third share of the home. When one dies, the other two will own a half-share of the property. And when the second dies, the final survivor will own the entire property.

Although the three of you can hold title as joint tenants, taking title as "tenants-in-common" might be a better idea. That way, each of you could sell or will his or her one-third share of the property to someone else. Such flexibility could be important if, say, you have children and want the kids to inherit the property rather than your siblings.

Holding title as tenants-in-common also would allow you to easily sell your interest in the home in the unlikely event that you and your siblings get into an argument over whether to keep the house or sell it.

Talk to your title-insurance representative, your real estate agent, closing attorney or escrow agent for more advice.

Real estate trivia: Most homebuyers today base their purchasing decision on the "quality of the neighborhood," according to a new survey by the National Association of Realtors. Convenience to work is second, followed by affordability.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405. All net proceeds this month go to the Wounded Warrior Project to help disabled veterans and their families pay for medical help and housing.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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