Fractured Families: Dealing with Sticky Inheritance Issues Navigating Through a Complex Situation

Trying to determine who gets an inherited property (and its related issues) can be complicated (iStock).

Ideally, beloved heirlooms tend to stay in the family when applicable, passed down from one generation to be appropriately cherished by the next, ad infinitum.

Unfortunately, many families are less than ideal, and thus inheritance can become more point of contention than birthright. This is as true for condominium and cooperative units as it is precious metals. Occasionally the transfer of property is anything but seamless, roping in various players who would rather not be involved in family affairs outside of their own. But customs – and the law – dictate that they must.


Instances of conflict upon the passing of a unit owner usually revolve around the inability to ascertain to whom the property is intended, whether it’s because there are too few (i.e. zero) candidates or too many. It's the latter instance that can get most dicey, as prolonged legal battles may ensue. Steve W. Birbach, president and CEO of Vanderbilt Property Management LLC in Glenwood Landing, New York, has endured such a saga.

“A fellow who owned an apartment in one of our buildings passed away, and we didn't hear from his estate for a not-insubstantial deal of time,” he relates. “Eventually his son called, whom we informed that the estate needed to keep making maintenance payments for the apartment. Apparently, there were issues between the son, an ex-wife and a current wife.... complicated family stuff of which I'd not been aware and cannot really elaborate on. But the son had been led to believe that he was to inherit the apartment, though the father, after remarrying, had left the place to someone else, and thus the son was unwilling to make payments on a unit that wasn't his. Something near six months go by, and I tell the board that we should just refer this situation to counsel and let them act in the best interests of the co-op.

“During this time,” Birbach continues, “we keep sending bills and calling the numbers we have for the family, but they don't work or we get no reply, so we start a foreclosure action. And in this particular case, the day before the auction, the estate calls and announces that they're going to pay. I refer them to the lawyer, and, lo and behold, they provide bank checks at auction that covered arrears. This took 18 months from start to finish.”


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