Property and Probate

Dear Len & Rosie,

My adopted father built his own home on property in Glen Ellen in 1964. My mother and I contributed substantial labor towards building up the home, road and ranch. My dad always said, "This will all be yours one day. You aren't just working for me, you're working for yourself."

My mom passed away ten years ago and since then my dad got into a relationship with one of her best friends as his significant live-in lover. My dad feels that he owes her something for living with him and caring for the place for the past nine years.

Dad says he wants her to be able to live there after he dies for as long as she wants to or unless she remarries. I have no problem with this plan but as far as I know he has not made a will to this effect. He is dragging his feet on legal paperwork.

I am afraid that when he dies, she will claim some sort of squatter's rights and try to take the place away from me or run up extreme maintenance costs that I can't cover, forcing me to sell the home. What can I do to guarantee that I will get the house and land as I was promised all these years?


Dear Richard,

There's no such thing as common law marriage in California. She's not his wife. On the other hand, an adopted child is treated as a natural child under the eyes of the law. If your father keeps everything in his name and dies without a will or trust, you will inherit everything through probate. Ordinarily, the only way she would be entitled to any of your father's assets is if he adds her to the deed to the property or leaves something to her in his will or trust.

However, the girlfriend could claim that your father promised to provide her with a home in return for her taking care of him, but you can do that too. Even though your father never signed a contract obligating him to leave you the home, the work you did for him in reliance of his promise that "all this will be yours someday" can be enforced in court.

The hard part is proving it, because  you could lose. The smart thing for you to do is to urge your father to create an estate plan. He ought to have a revocable trust to avoid probate. He can make you the trustee after he dies, and leave his girlfriend the right to live in his home until she dies or gets married. He needs to see an estate planning attorney. If he does not, then all of his assurances to both you and his girlfriend could become nothing other than empty promises and a difficult lawsuit.

Len & Rosie