Legal Question in Real Estate Law in California

Unclaimed real property

If a property owner dies with no will and no relatives, will the property transfer to any individual who pays property taxes for five years? (Obviously the property is free of encumberances including mortgages.) Also, if same person paid property taxes in years 1 and 2, and a different person pays taxes in year 3 or 4, do the 5 years start over again? I.E., do the required 5 years of property tax payments need to be concurrent and by the same individual? Finally, is there any other way to gain possession of the property?

Asked on 3/22/06, 1:55 pm

1 Answer from Attorneys

Bryan Whipple Bryan R. R. Whipple, Attorney at Law

Re: Unclaimed real property

Under California's Probate Code, if someone dies without a will or trust and there are no known kin, the decedent's property will escheat to the state, subject to any possible future discovery of a will, trust or surviving relative. That means the State of California may end up with the property.

On the other hand, someone who merely pays the taxes has no right, title, interest or claim on the property merely as a consequence of those payments.

You may be confusing this situation with adverse possession, the process by which a party actually in possession of real property may acquire legal title. The requirements for title by adverse possession in California are "open, notorious, hostile and continuous possession for a period of at least five years, coupled with payment of all property taxes due or assessed." Each of these terms has a someehat technical meaning; for example, "hostile" doesn't mean you maintain your possession by pit bulls or land mines. It simply means that your possession is non-permissive, i.e. the owner didn't give you a lease, easement, license, etc. to be in possession.

Since you apparently haven't been in possession of the decedent's real property, you will not have satisfied the conditions for acquiring title be adverse possession.

Finally, adverse possession can be accomplished by "tacking" successive adverse possessions of less than five years so that the total is at least five years, as long as possession didn't revert back to the owner of record at all during the entire five years.

With this information in mind, you might want to see a real esate or wills-trusts-and-estates lawyer about this situation; there may be some other basis for asserting a claim to the property, or some additional facts that would affect this answer.

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Answered on 3/22/06, 2:42 pm

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