Estates left in limbo

Emma Graney
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A will can save property from ruin, and families from rage

Mary Dahlberg's Main Brook home stands empty since her death last year. As she left no will, the estate will go to the province unless relatives can be found.

Main Brook — In Main Brook stands a home, empty, skeletal trees scratching the white siding.

When the wind blows, dry leaves dance around a maroon 2003 Toyota truck in the driveway.

The license plate of the truck sports a registration sticker, “Oct 2008”; the front left wheel of the truck is flat, the rims rusted.

The vehicle and house belonged to Mary Dahlberg.

She died last November, five or so years after the death of her husband Bob.

She didn’t have a will.

There’s a search to find Mary’s relatives, but for now the house and truck remain where they are, falling prey to the elements.

“It’s so sad to see it all just sitting there,” says Main Brook resident Eunice Tucker.

She and her husband, Herb, were longtime friends of the Dahlbergs; Herb knew Bob for close to 40 years and knew Mary from when she was a girl growing up in the community.

“I was in and out of there every day for 20 years — me and Bob were like brothers,” says Herb.

“Now, when you drive down the road at night, you look over to the point and there’s nothing, no lights on,” adds Eunice, sadness flickering across her face.

“They’d always have a light on.”

According to the Tuckers, the Dahlbergs were a friendly couple, always on the go.

They’d entertain friends and government officials who came to the town, the large stone fireplace in their house ablaze with warmth.

Mary grew up in Main Brook, born to Julia and Dorman Talk. Julia was a Ryder before she married.

When Mary’s father died, she and her mother ended up moving to the United States.

That was where Mary met Bob. The two married and spent their summers in Main Brook for 20 years before they moved to the Northern Peninsula permanently.

By all accounts they were an interesting pair — Herb says Bob spent hours teaching him the art of stained glass and was a property developer, while Mary was a certified pilot who once flew Cessnas and had a contract for school buses in the States.

“They were very nice people,” says Herb, “good people. A lot of people knew them.”

When Bob died, the estate went to Mary.

Mary’s death, in the absence of a will and with no children, means the estate will be distributed through the Intestate Succession Act.

In simple terms, the act says that if someone dies with no spouse, child, father, mother, brother, sister, nephew or niece, the estate is distributed equally among the next line of relatives.

The problem is that Mary was an only child and no one knows of any relatives. If none are found, the estate will likely go to the province.

The Dahlberg case is by no means rare.

Anecdotal evidence suggests many people in the province die without ever having written a will — something the executive director of the Public Legal Information Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (PLIAN), Kristen O’Keefe, says isn’t a great idea.

“Death may be a difficult issue to think about, but estate planning is important, and not just for the senior population, or those contemplating retirement,” she said.

“A will gives you some control over what happens to your estate after you die and you can know that your things will go to the people who you want to have them.

“If you die without a will in Newfoundland and Labrador, someone with an interest in your estate — such as a relative or a creditor, or a representative of the government — will normally need to apply for a grant of administration in order to distribute your estate.”

Even if you have children, it’s a good idea to get a will together.

Madonna Caines grew up in Port Saunders with six siblings.

When her mother died in December 2005 with no will, the house automatically passed down to the kids of the family.

And that, she says, has caused nothing but heartache.

“This has broken up my family because my mother never thought it was important to put anything on paper,” she says.

“People need to realize that everyone can be getting along just fine, talking and laughing around the kitchen table when their parents are alive, but when they die everything can change.”

She’s offered to buy the house but says one sibling won’t agree to the sale, which has left the house to ruins.

“How can seven people own a house?” she says.

“This kind of stuff can turn children to hate. It was supposed to be a place to come home to, but instead it’s gone from a house we used to love to a house of tears.

“It’s so important to make a will, for parents to have everything in writing. Brothers and sisters shouldn’t fight like this.”

O’Keefe says making a will isn’t difficult and you don’t need to consult a lawyer, although hiring one can be helpful.

“A lawyer can help ensure that your will meets all the legal requirements and that the meaning of the words you use in your will are clear and legally accurate,” she explained, “and can also help you by identifying different options for disposing of your estate.”

O’Keefe notes it’s important to keep your will current and to update it if you get married, divorced or separated, or if you experience the death of a beneficiary or birth of a child.

O’Keefe says there are lots of resources available, such as the publication entitled “Wills and Estates: Help! Where Do I Start?”, prepared by PLIAN and the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.

You can contact PLIAN toll-free between 9 a.m. and noon on weekdays at 1-888-660-7788.

The Northern Pen

Organizations: Toyota, PLIAN, Public Legal Information Association of Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court

Geographic location: Main Brook, Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland and Labrador Port Saunders

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Recent comments

  • Peter
    December 09, 2010 - 13:00

    It is ironic that the house need repairs but the municipality will still charge taxes even though it uses minimal, if any services. Some jurisdictions, other than NL, do not permit taxes to be collected against an estate. In the very least, the occupant/heir ought to be permitted to decuct basic maintainance from the tax debt? In stead, the "council" will use a high interest rate to raise the "debt" to justify a forced sale to benefit lurking land developers looking for a bargain. Looks can be deceiving, a homestead, has more and valuable property rights than many new, mortgaged subdivision homes??

  • Neil
    December 07, 2010 - 08:36

    That said, you also have to look at the trouble with getting estates probated. I worked with a finance company for a few years and putting mortgages on older family owned homes, built in family gardens came with a hefty legal price tag. Especially when the land was never technically owned by anyone in the family and no deeds were ever registered. As a part of estate planning, everyone needs to make sure that everything is in order as it relates to title to certain things. Most of outport NL is like this. You see alot of estates that were never probated because, for example, the family agreed that Johnny should get the house and then when he dies, his kids have to go back maybe two, three generations probating estates to get title cleared. Sometime it is very difficult for the family to do this.