‘I’d like a nest egg of my own’: My sister and I will inherit our mother’s house, but it’s miles from anywhere. Is it wrong to force her to sell?

United States

Dear Quentin,

My sister and I are going to inherit a house and property that is currently occupied by our mother and stepfather. There is no public transportation near the house, no Uber UBER, -1.43% and no Lyft LYFT, -0.67%. I have a physical disability, and I have never driven. I think the house and its property should be sold between me and my sister, and the profit split 50/50. 

My sister and her husband have the ability to buy my half of the property without even breaking a sweat. I suggested they could either purchase the house and the land, if they so choose, or look for another property and home for the same price. I’d like to have a nest egg of my own for the future as I will need to pay for private care or for a senior-living center.

Will I be allowed to sell my share?

The Sister

Related: ‘I was devastated by her infidelity’: I’m still on the deed of my ex-wife’s house, but our divorce decree says she gets the property. Am I sitting on a golden goose?

“One sibling might regard the house as the last reminder of their beloved mother or father, and understandably see it as filled with memories.”

MarketWatch illustration

Dear Sister,

The answer, my friend, is written in the will. 

If your mother dies before your stepfather, and they jointly own the house, your stepfather will most likely inherit her share. Types of property ownership vary by state, but joint tenancy with the right of survivorship is the most common form of ownership between spouses; it gives all owners an equal share of the property and does not allow one owner to add another person to the deed — and, critically, if your mother dies, her share of the property goes to the other owner. Tenants in common do not have the right of survivorship.

The best action is preventative. You are lucky to have your parents, but that also gives you the opportunity to express your wishes to them and tell them that you would like to sell the house as it is not practical to live in, and they could either put the house in a revocable trust with those instructions and/or accommodate your request in their will. If your sister does not wish to buy your share of the property at the current market value, the house must be sold. That would prevent you from launching a partition action — that is, forcing a sale of the property. 

“When specific instructions regarding the property are not provided in the decedent’s estate-planning documents, the executor or trustee generally has the right to proceed with disposing of it as they see fit, so long as doing so would be in the best interests of the trust or estate,” according to the Keystone Law Group. Executors and trustees are fiduciaries and must act in the best interest of the estate or trust. “This means that they sometimes have to make decisions that are not in line with what all beneficiaries want,” Keystone says.

Open up a family discussion

Ideally, open up lines of communication with your sibling. When parents die, and people are grieving, emotions can take over. One sibling might regard the house as the last reminder of their beloved mother or father, and understandably see it as filled with memories. So if you could come to an arrangement with your sister before that happens, the better you will be able to plan for the future. If your entire family discussed how they would like the estate divided after your parents are gone, all the better. Inheritance is still a taboo subject in many households.

In fairness, the reluctance to have such conversations works both ways. Although parents do talk with their children about money from time to time, more than one-third of people told a Wells Fargo Wealth & Investment Management survey last year that “their heirs have little or no knowledge of their inheritance plans.” Early conversations circumvent debacles over complex inheritances and can help prevent adult children wading into such territory when a parent is ailing, incapacitated or is suffering from dementia, which can lead to further legal problems.

If things were different and you were currently renting and wished to live in your parents’ house for the rest of your life, they could give you a life estate – a formal agreement that would allow you to remain there for the rest of your life. Doing this would also, in theory, protect your estate from Medicaid liens, and ensure that the home is kept in the family. More importantly, it would also prevent the home from being sold from underneath your feet. Similarly, a real-estate trust would also protect the property being sold, and similarly keep it in the family.

Word of warning: If your stepfather dies first, your mother will leave her home to her heirs — you and your sister. If your mother dies first, assuming her share is transferred to her husband, he will own the house in its entirety. That could present a new array of problems. I have received many letters from stepchildren who say their step-parent reneged on their stated intentions when their spouse was alive and, instead, left the home they shared to their own children or other relatives. In other words, you, the stepchildren, could get left out in the cold.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

Previous columns by Quentin Fottrell:

‘He demonizes me’: My delightful father, 95, has substantial assets. I’m afraid my right-wing brother will steal his money. What can I do?

My boyfriend owns his home and I pay him rent. I have five kids and he has two children. What happens to me if he dies?

‘They got caught up in the 2008 crash’: My friend invested $ 50,000 in her brother’s failed property business. On her deathbed, he pledged to repay her children. What now?

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where members help answer life’s thorniest money issues. Post your questions, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

By emailing your questions to the Moneyist or posting your dilemmas on the Moneyist Facebook group, you agree to have them published anonymously on MarketWatch.

By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.