‘He just ignores us’: My parents put my youngest brother on the title of our family home. Is he morally obligated to share it?

Dear Quentin,

I have six siblings. My youngest brother, 50, has his name on the title of the family house, as did my two deceased brothers. Two sisters got married and removed their names from the deed. One of our sisters was on the title, but also passed away.

My brother says, “I don’t own it,” but when we ask him to add all siblings to the title, or set up the trust or any legal documents to indicate the family house belongs to all brothers and sisters, he just ignores us, and never acts on it. 

The house has been paid off and it’s worth about $980,000. The property is located in California. He never paid the mortgage on the house because he was too young at the time. What should we do? Should we put pressure on him? 

Does he have the right to keep the house?

The Sister

“Notwithstanding some seriously lax estate planning, I assume your parents had their reasons.”

MarketWatch illustration

Dear Sister,

This is a peculiar, but perhaps not unusual situation, for your family to find themselves in. Your parents left their home to only some of their children? I don’t understand the logic of leaving some children out of their will, likely knowing that it could cause discord after they were gone. Notwithstanding some seriously lax estate planning, I assume they had their reasons.

You don’t say how the house was titled. If your siblings were “tenants in common,” they would each own an undivided share in the property, meaning that after your brothers died, they could leave their share to their spouse or children. There are no rights of survivorship by the other party on the deed. 

Joint tenancy with the right of survivorship, on the other hand, means that when your siblings died, the other people with their name on the title deed would have automatically inherited their shares. The deceased siblings’ share would not, in other words, go through probate. I assume, from your letter, that they owned the house as “tenants in common.”

Putting the legal aspect aside, we are left with the moral — or ethical — quandary of what your youngest brother could or should do with this property. He inherited this home from your parents, and he is sitting on a property worth nearly $1 million. Is he under a moral obligation to add you to the deed of his home? (Because it is “his” home.) I don’t believe he is. 

Whether or not he paid the mortgage when his parents were alive, or indeed if others helped him with it, is immaterial. He could, of course, make an effort to pay those back who helped him, but it’s his house, and he is under no obligation to add anyone to the deed: siblings, spouse or, for that matter, his next-door neighbor. None of the aforementioned have a right to the house.

You’re not the only sibling to feel like they were iced out of an inheritance. This woman wrote to me a few weeks ago, asking about the most foolproof way to leave her estate to one sibling, while leaving her other siblings out in the cold. As I told her: “money can change the dynamic in a relationship. Inheritances can reignite old family rivalries, or even create new ones.”

He is not obliged to hand out latch keys to his remaining siblings, or invite people around for dinner. Everyone has a right to feel safe and secure in their home and, assuming he inherited his deceased siblings’ shares in this property, it is his home. Instead of trying to convince him to do what you would like him to do, try to make peace with whatever situation led up to this point. That, hard as it may be, could include a conversation with the person staring back at you in the mirror.

Your brother sounds like the type of person who avoids conflict. Hence, his insistence that he doesn’t own the home. I have no doubt that he knows whose name is on the deed, but he doesn’t want the responsibility that comes with dealing with siblings who believe they have been wronged. He is the proverbial piggy in the middle. Putting pressure on him to sign over a share of his house will only drive him further away, and likely cause him to pull up the proverbial drawbridge. 

Also from Quentin Fottrell:

My mother’s will leaves her house to her two kids and two nieces, but she sold her home. Could these nieces come after us for the money?

I didn’t see how this could happen to my family — until now’: My brother drained $200,000 from my mother’s savings. How can I stop him?

On the day my stepfather died of brain cancer, he changed his trust and left everything to my sister. Do I have any recourse?

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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