There is no legal time limit to transfer real estate after death. It could happen quickly, or it could take years. We’ve seen cases where the real estate doesn’t get transferred until generations later. A fast sale is ideal, because problems can emerge in the meantime. There is a lag between the date of death and when the executor gets legal authority to handle the property. So, even “fast” isn’t very fast.
How long does it take to get preliminary letters?
The executor does not have full authority over the estate until he gets letters testamentary (or letters of administration) from the court. Preliminary letters give the authority to collect and manage property of the estate. They will not grant authority to distribute property. Preliminary letters are handy for entering the real estate for repairs, etc.
Theoretically, the executor can get preliminary letters within a week. They can be issued same-day in emergency situations. Realistically, getting the letters is a slow process. We’ve had properties with leaks and rodents, and it still took us weeks to get preliminary letters. We called the court daily and filed papers often, and it didn’t move as fast as we needed it to move.
If you have an estate without emergencies, you probably won’t get preliminary letters. If the court takes weeks to respond to emergency petitions, they aren’t going to move any faster for “normal” estates.
How to prevent foreclosure on inherited property
Undoing a foreclosure proceeding has legal costs and other implications. No one wants to deal with that. To prevent foreclosure, first notify the lender. Even though the mortgage company can’t give you much information without court letters, you should still inform them that you are working on the estate. If the lender doesn’t hear from anyone, they will go right to their foreclosure counsel.
When folks hear the word “foreclosure,” they think of mortgages. Your homeowners’ association or co-op board can also take action, because they aren’t getting paid either. Again, they won’t have the legal authority to work with you. But you can let them know that you are getting preliminary letters.
You should also look up and notify any other potential lien holders. There could be a mechanic’s lien, or a family member with a non-bank mortgage on the property. You might be surprised what a simple letter can do. Let them know that you are working on the estate so that no one else starts a process that is costly to undo.
What to do when property owner dies
There are certain things you can and can’t do without court letters.
First, you cannot forward the mail. The post office needs legal authority to do that.
You most likely cannot change the locks. Although, this is a gray area. If you are in a managed co-op or homeowners’ association, they will bar you from securing the property. You have a better chance of securing a property that is not managed. If you think it will be a contested probate, don’t change the locks. You can get in big trouble, especially in New York.
You may be able to winterize the property and secure it in other ways. Piled up mail and overgrown grass signal vacancy and can attract thieves or vandals. Even if you don’t have legal authority to clean up the newspapers, the court won’t give you a hard time deterring criminals.
Remember, the property manager may not even live in the same state. Make a relationship with the doorman or superintendent and notify them of the owner’s death. They can keep an eye on the property and let you know if something looks off. Without court letters, you won’t get access to the interior of the property. But, the doorman can let you know of a leak or pests or a problem that affects the nearby units.
Communicate with everyone until you get legal authority from the court to handle the property. Preliminary communication can stop a whole lot of problems from starting.
My book, “How Probate Works,” can help you know what to expect with probate real estate.