Our mother left my brother and I a house. What can I do if he refuses to give me a key or let me into the house to inspect it? 

December 15, 2014

How you deal with this situation depends on the answers to a number of questions. You may have to employ strong measures to honor your mother’s wishes and be treated fairly.

© 2014 Richard Montgomery

Reader Question: Our mother left my brother and me a house. He is living in the house on the east coast. I live on the west coast. He changed the locks, and I do not have access to the house. What can I do if he refuses to give me a key or let me into the house to inspect it? Heather G.

Monty’s Answer: Siblings dispute inherited real estate often. Was the property subject to probate? Is the title to the home now in the name of both you and your brother? Is your brother paying rent? Who is paying the real estate tax, insurance, and maintenance cost? Do you have a partnership agreement? How you deal with this situation depends on the answers to the questions above and similar issues.

Assuming your mother divided the interests equally, you have equal rights with your brother. It appears there is no genuine cooperation. You may have to employ more robust measures to follow your mother’s wishes and treat yourself fairly.

The potential options

The primary choices for dividing real estate interests as you have described in the property are pretty simple:

  • One option is that both parties agree that one will​ purchase the other’s interest.
  • The second option is to agree to sell the property and go separate ways.
  • A third option is to form a partnership that describes who will manage the property, what compensation the manager will receive, and how to share net income.
  • These options assume conversations between you, leading to an agreement that spells out a suitable choice. A fourth option is to do nothing and continue as in the past.

​Each of your circumstances will drive the ultimate choice of which agreement works best. Personal finances, physical location, lifestyle choices, and more will negotiate a deal both parties can accept.

A reasonable path

When you have determined which of the options work best for you, consider this approach:

  1. ​Write to your brother (start a file about the history and exchanges with him) in a cordial yet business-like manner outlining the situation as you see it. Be careful to use only facts you are sure are correct and to be respectful. Do not threaten him or coerce him, but seek to understand. Suggest to him the solution above that you think makes the most sense and explain your reasoning. Tell him you would like a response by a specific date so you both can better plan for the future. Then wait for his reply.
  2. If you receive a positive response, discuss what steps to take to put the plan into effect to the solution you placed in front of him. It will be one of the three options outlined above.

 Suppose one is buying the other’s interest. In that case, it will be wise for each of you to order an appraisal and set guidelines about what will happen if the appraisers are more than a certain percentage apart.

 If you both choose a partnership, many financial decisions in joint ownership will keep the two of you in communication regularly. Some examples are maintenance issues, repair decisions, paying property expenses, determining market rent, and more.

 ​3. If you receive no response or an unsatisfactory answer (“I’m not paying rent.”),​ then you have another decision to make. You can live with the situation, or you can escalate the situation. If you escalate, consider communicating again with your brother about what will happen next, which may involve much of his time and money. An intermediate step may be finding a mediator to help to resolve the conflict. Mediation can often bring resolution without a protracted and draining court battle. Many courts today will refer disputes to mediation as an interim step.

 ​Even if ​one of you agreed ​to​ buy the other’s interest in the ​property, there would be a winner and a loser sometime in the future. When the home sells again, the survivor​ is the winner. When it sells for a loss, the withdrawn sibling ​is the winner.

You came in together, go out together

Agreeing to sell the home now, together, maybe the best solution, even though it may be a solution neither of you wants. Knowing the answers to the questions posed above may allow the two of you to reach an amicable conclusion.