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Why every Philadelphian needs a will


By Jonathan J. Koehler and Michaela Graf

Murder is sudden. It does not wait for you to plan out how to care for your family, and violent crimes in Philadelphia are out of control. Separately, Philadelphia is also experiencing a homeownership crisis through tangled titles. One way for us to protect our friends and families is to make sure we have a valid will.

First, let’s discuss the issue of violence in our city. Philadelphia has seen a significant increase in gun violence and homicides over the past several years. Homicide has been one of the top 10 leading causes of death since 2015. In 2022, there were 516 homicides and 1,789 nonfatal shootings. Within the first three months of 2023, there were about 100 total homicides and nearly 300 nonfatal shootings. At this same time in 2022, there were 103 fatal shootings and 365 nonfatal shootings.

Now, let’s turn to the issue of tangled titles. A tangled title is a deed that does not accurately reflect the present homeowner’s ownership. Tangled titles often arise when someone passes away, and the name on the deed is never changed to the new owner. The effect is that people risk facing difficulties when taking out a mortgage, obtaining homeowner’s insurance and selling the home. A tangled title also risks a family’s generational wealth because homeowners may have difficulty passing their home on to relatives or may experience someone attempting to steal their deed. As of 2021, it was found that 2% of Philadelphia homes have a tangled title. Together, the properties are worth $1.1 billion. Nearly half of all tangled titles in Philadelphia are found in the North, West and Southwest neighborhoods.

In a time of grief and loss, families should not worry about losing their homes or fighting over ownership. A will can help people avoid tangled titles by planning how to dispose of their estate.

An estate is a person’s total property, from nuts to bolts. Wills are the planning instruments that explain how an individual wants their estate divided. When someone is killed or dies without a valid will, that person dies “intestate.” Whether a person has a valid will or not, the matter goes to probate. When a person dies with a will, the will is then probated to make sure it is valid, and an executor is appointed. In intestate probate, the government appoints someone — typically a spouse or heir — to distribute the deceased’s estate.

Without a will, the deceased individual has no say in where their stuff goes — including their home, care and other valuable items. The court will decide how to distribute the assets, and this process can range anywhere from months to years. It can also lead to disputes over “who gets what” and delays in those selected people getting ownership of and rights to the property. Not having a will in place also leaves your family and loved ones in a state of uncertainty and, possibly, financial hardship.

Imagine this: You take care of your grandparents. They are so grateful for your help, and they want to give you their house. Instead of writing a will, they say you can have the home.

Three years later, your grandparents pass on, and now you are trying to persuade the court to grant you ownership and rights to that house because, “They said you could have it.” Even if it does work out — it causes unnecessary hardship.

Homeownership and violence may seem unrelated, but there is a commonality to both — the importance of having a will. Owning a home is the anchor stabilizing any family, especially in Philadelphia. It is also a powerful way to preserve generational wealth for your family. With violence and death so prevalent, we must take the necessary steps to protect our families. We can do this by protecting our homes. Drafting a will sounds daunting and expensive … but it does not have to be. Certain people can qualify for legal assistance to prepare their life planning documents.

Every Philadelphian must take the time to draft a will. ••

Jonathan J. Koehler is a law student at Rutgers Law School in Camden, New Jersey. He works as a paralegal at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in the Sheller Center for Social Justice.

Michaela Graf graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.A. in journalism from Drexel University. She works as a paralegal at Pritzker Law Group, a real estate law firm. She plans to attend law school in the near future.

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