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A reporter ID’d 100 St. Louis homes with dead owners. There are likely thousands more

A photo of a home on a grassy hill.
STLPR File photo

St. Louis is littered with "tangled titles." It’s a condition coined by attorneys that describes what happens when a person dies without leaving a will or estate plan to define the ownership of their home.

For descendants, the result is a legally fraught situation: The law divides the home’s ownership among the remaining family members. Since no one person can claim full ownership, the home is in danger of falling into disrepair, and even vacancy.

“Their freedoms of doing things with that property are restricted, it actually becomes what's known as dead capital,” said Nick Phillips, senior editor of St. Louis Magazine, on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. 

Phillips investigated the domino-like effects of tangled titles and how the situation can create a chain of legal problems for families. He found that these cases are prevalent in predominantly Black neighborhoods, including Wells-Goodfellow, Baden and Mark Twain.

The result, he reported, “blocks the transfer of intergenerational wealth and leads to vacancy.” Meanwhile, the home becomes locked in a legal limbo.

“It's an asset that can't be sold, rented out, or bought,” Phillips explained. “If the family wants to seek public financial assistance for home repair, they can't do that because the title is not in their name. They can't modify a mortgage, if there was a mortgage, because the title is not in their name.”

Phillips used a combination of property records, death records and genealogical records from Ancestry.com in an attempt to understand the spread of “tangled titles” in areas of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

He found about 100 parcels owned by people who have been dead for at least six years. He’s certain that it’s an undercount.

Attorney Rachel Waterman, of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, says her organization’s small staff has done everything it can to provide estate planning services and legal aid to disentangle the tangled titles.

The true number of tangled titles in the St. Louis region, Waterman believes, is in the thousands.

“Here at Legal Services, we handle about 100 cases a year at full capacity,” she said. “A lot of people are living in homes that aren't in their name, and they're doing their best to keep them up with the resources that they have. But if there's a fire or a weather event, or something that needs major repair, they'll start getting cited for that; and they won't be able to fix it up because their name is not on the house.”

For the full conversation with Phillips, attorney Rachel Waterman, and insight from a homeowner who was able to escape her tangled title, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Listen to reporter Nick Phillips on 'St. Louis on the Air'
St. Louis Magazine's Nick Phillips joins attorney Rachel Waterman to discuss 'tangled titles.'

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."