First things first: You need to understand what, exactly, you’ve inherited, with whom you may need to share the inheritance, and what liens (including but not limited to mortgages) are attached to the property. So after taking a moment to appreciate what a monumental event inheriting a house is, you’ll want to get down to the business of managing this important new asset.
The Legal Steps of Inheriting a House
Inheriting a house through a will or trust is a big deal, whether you knew that you were going to inherit the property or it comes as a complete surprise. From a financial standpoint, inheriting a house that is fully paid off can be quite different from inheriting one with a mortgage. If you don’t inherit the house free and clear, the outstanding balance on the mortgage can become your responsibility (or a responsibility that you must share with any other heirs who share in the house).
When someone dies and leaves a will, that will is typically presented to a probate court judge, (although not all wills are probated). That judge would then review the will. Typically, a will contains the name of an executor — the person whom the deceased wants to help carry out the wishes listed in the will.
The judge may approve the name of the executor listed in the will or name someone else for the task. Once there is an executor, that person has the fiduciary duty to make sure the terms of the will are carried out.
Specific duties of an executor as it relates to the house can include locating all the people who, according to the will, are to share in the ownership of the house and safeguarding the property until it is passed to the recipient(s). When a home is willed to someone, that person has a “right to ownership,” but he or she doesn’t actually own the home until the title is transferred into their name.
Inheritance situations can be reasonably simple or quite complex, and what’s true in one state isn’t necessarily so in another. Any questions you have about the legalities of your particular situation should be addressed with an attorney well versed in the laws of your state.
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Steps to Take When You Inherit a House
Once you are notified that you have inherited a house, there are some actions that need to be taken fairly quickly:
• It’s important to quickly determine whether there is a mortgage (or a home equity loan, or both) on the property. If so, you will need to determine how to keep up the payments and find out whether property taxes and insurance are rolled into the mortgage payments. An involuntary lien, such as those related to unpaid taxes, are also a possibility and can be identified through a title search.
• If property taxes are not rolled into the mortgage, they may need to be paid separately (this might include overdue taxes). When you inherit a home — with a mortgage or free and clear — you may need to pay property taxes as soon as you inherit. The home can also be reassessed at current market value at this point, which may cause an increase in property tax. If you have questions about property taxes, insurance, and the like, the executor of the estate might be a good resource.
• Contact the insurance company that’s providing homeowners insurance for the property to keep coverage from lapsing.
• Consider getting the home appraised. This will help later, should you decide to sell the house, because it will help determine capital gains taxes (more on that later). And if you are one of multiple heirs, having an appraisal could help you start the conversation in the event that one of you wishes to buy the other out.
• Call utility companies and cancel accounts that aren’t necessary (for example, cable television if no one will be living in the home immediately) and make arrangements to pay those that are necessary (heat, light, water, trash pick-up).
• Determine how to keep up the yard and check or stop the mail. An untended property invites break-ins, and an overgrown yard can face fines from city government or a homeowners association.
• The home may be full of furniture and belongings that need to be distributed to family members, sold, donated, or disposed of. The executor can help determine whether the will designates that certain items inside the home are destined for specific heirs.
Deciding if You Should Sell an Inherited House
You’ll quickly face the decision about what to do with the house you’ve inherited. You might want to move in yourself, but if you and your siblings, say, inherited it as joint owners, you’ll need to agree on a plan. If the property is a family home, emotions can come into play here. (Heirs who can’t agree may need the court system to sort things out.)
If you’re the one who wants to live in the home and your fellow heirs aren’t interested, you could pay them rent or you could explore assuming any existing mortgage, meaning the terms would stay the same but the mortgage would be in your name. This isn’t always possible, and it is only a smart move if the terms of the existing mortgage are better than what you would get with a new loan. Otherwise, you could consider taking out a new mortgage and using the loan to pay your fellow heir(s).
You could also rent the house to someone else as a source of income and divide the proceeds among joint heirs, minus the cost of a property manager and any costs of home repairs and upkeep.
Another solution, of course, is to sell the house. Bear in mind that you will need to pay capital gains tax on any increase in value that occurs between the time you inherited the property and when it’s sold.
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Using the Equity in an Inherited House
Another option you have when you inherit a house, assuming there isn’t a large mortgage or liens already on the property, is to use the equity in the home to finance renovations that could increase the home’s value or supply cash for your other needs. If you have taken over the mortgage, you could consider a cash-out refinance. In this process, you take out a new mortgage loan for the amount owed on the current mortgage, plus an additional sum in cash that you can use for any purpose.
Inheriting a house brings lots of responsibility and many questions — and sharing in an inherited property can be even more complicated, especially if it is a place that holds many memories for family members. But with some quick moves to protect your new asset and calm consideration of whether to inhabit, rent, sell, or renovate, you can enjoy the benefits of the inheritance for years to come.
SoFi can help you save money when you refinance your mortgage. Plus, we make sure the process is as stress-free and transparent as possible. SoFi offers competitive fixed rates on a traditional mortgage refinance or cash-out refinance.
Photo credit: iStock/Pheelings Media
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