Verbal agreements and contracts in land

Q: My uncle owns 10 acres of property in PA. 17 years ago I was looking for property to build a cottage on. We started talking, and he said “you might as well build it here because I’m leaving you this land in my Will anyway.” We agreed to be “partners”; no written agreement exists, and the property remains titled in his name. I performed all the engineering, design, and construction (I am a Master carpenter). He functioned as a laborer. I kept detailed records of all construction materials, and he invested $45k, while I invested $32k. We continue to remain amicable and are not experiencing any conflict regarding ownership. I am just curious – from these limited details, does this “verbal” agreement, my monetary interest and labor, afford me any implied ownership (does a contract exist) in the property should a conflict ever develop between us? Someone mentioned a Statute of Frauds issue? (North Huntington, PA)

A:  I am not sure this is a potential Statue of Frauds problem as it is not a sale of real estate. If a problem occurred between you and he, your position would be much stronger if you had an interest in the real estate. If all work halted due to a disagreement, you would need to sue for your time and materials invested in his property based on his promise. The lawsuit could take years and could be expensive. The problem with him leaving the property to you in his will is that he could change his will at any time. Or, his will may be lost or destroyed at the time that he dies. Or, he needs to apply for Medicaid some day and the property, if in his name, would be included as a Medicaid assets and need to be sold. Perhaps you should discuss your concerns with him. Perhaps transferring title from him to you and he as joint tenants with rights of survivor and sharing real estate taxes would work. If he is open to discussion, consult with a lawyer who has real estate and estate experience.

How can my step children inherit from me in my will?

Q: In Family section of my Will I have included both my children and my step children and called them all “my children. Is it permissible in Pennsylvania to include both natural children and step children as children in my will without being specific. My intent is to treat them all equally.

A: In PA, they may not be legally considered “children” unless adopted unless paternity was established putatively (by your actions as raising them from birth as your own). However, the beauty of a will is that you have the complete discretion to choose the persons who will inherit from you, regardless of their biological relation. If you spell their names out in the will that would accomplish what you want. If you would die without a will (intestate), then inheritance of children is based on bloodlines established by the PA intestate succession statue. If there is the potential for any riff between your natural children and step children, make sure that your will is secured and protected so that it can be probated when you die. If your children would resent that your step children should inherit from you, they could destroy your will so it would not be probated and intestate law would be followed which may cause the step children to be excluded as heirs.