Are probate claims being used to take Michigan homes from rightful heirs?

(WXYZ) - The 7 Investigators first exposed how some public officials and real estate brokers are cashing in by selling homes after someone dies, often leaving the rightful heirs with very little in the estate.

Now 7 Investigator Heather Catallo has found out that this is happening even when an heir is making tax payments in the hopes of keeping the property.

The Probate Court is responsible for making sure all the assets someone had before they died are given to the rightful heirs. Those assets become part of your estate. 

If you don’t have any heirs, or if your heirs don’t want to get involved, a state-appointed lawyer called a Public Administrator can take over that estate. But many legal experts say some of those Public Administrators are taking this way too far.

Joanne Small Zaremba has been fixing up her childhood home.

“The house was so tiny, but it was so much love in the house, it didn’t matter to us,” said Joanne.

Joanne’s parents bought this Oakland County home in the early 1960s, and raised their four daughters there.

“I have a lot of great memories,” said Joanne.

When Joanne was seriously injured in a car accident, she moved back in with her widowed mother until June Small died suddenly in 2009.

“We were very close and I miss her,” said Joanne.

The home has been paid off. But after June Small’s death, Joanne discovered that her mom had fallen behind on the property taxes. 

To prevent a foreclosure, Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner got Joanne on a monthly payment plan for those past-due taxes. Meisner says Joanne has been 100% compliant.

“Property rights are very important to us, they’re constitutional.  We go to great lengths to help prevent foreclosure,” Meisner told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

Joanne thought all was well, until a man appeared at her door last spring wanting to post a notice from Ralph Roberts Realty that said “Ralph Roberts Realty LLC has been hired to secure and market the property for sale.”

“He said we’d like to buy your home and we’ve paid some back taxes for you,” said Joanne. “Red flags were going off, and I said I’m not signing anything. No!  I said I don’t know who you people are, but why would I sign this when I have an agreement with the county?”

Joanne may not have known who he was, but the Treasurer and the Oakland County Clerk do know.

“These are predators,” said Clerk Lisa Brown. “Your home is usually your biggest financial investment and that someone is just going to sweep in and take it from under you is awful!!”

So why would Ralph Roberts’ employees pay $6,720.87 of Joanne’s property taxes? Because they want to sell her mother’s house, so they got Kemp Klein lawyer Barbara Andruccioli to open a Probate estate in Joanne’s mother’s name.

Andruccioli was appointed by the Attorney General in 2013 to be a Public Administrator in Oakland County.   Court records show that Andruccioli regularly uses Ralph Roberts and his myriad companies, including one called Probate Asset Recovery (PAR), to open estates, sell the homes and cash in.

Roberts would not talk to us on camera for this story, but he did tell us last fall that he’s brought more than $4.5 million into estates since 2013. The heirs get some of that.  But Roberts often takes 1/3 of the estate-- and that’s not all.

“I find properties. I believe there’s a benefit, so I then tell a public administrator, here’s the benefit there.”

“So you’re getting the real estate fees, and you’re getting the Probate Asset Recovery fees,” asked Catallo in November.

“If we’re successful, yes,” said Roberts.

“We determined that this process was concocted by these folks of essentially using the probate system to bilk lawful heirs out of their property,” said Meisner.

Until the 7 Investigators got involved, Joanne had no idea that Andruccioli had opened an estate in her mom’s name. Joanne says her three sisters were never notified either.

Court records show that Andruccioli mailed the notice that she was opening the estate to an outdated address for one of the sisters, even though legal ethics experts say a Public Administrator has a duty to try to find all lawful heirs.

“If an heir is living in the very property that becomes a subject matter in the sale, then you’re certainly not exercising any diligence, let alone due diligence in not going to the occupant of the house in question and determining whether there is an heir residing therein,” said University of Detroit Mercy Law Professor Larry Dubin.

Even after Joanne told the folks from Ralph Roberts’ company that she was on a tax payment plan with the Treasurer, Roberts’ team still filed a Claim of Interest that says the “Property did not have a payment arrangement in place and would be lost for unpaid 2013 taxes.”

Treasurer Meisner says that’s false. He also says his office made it clear to Andruccioli that there had been a payment plan in place since 2010.

“This one administrator said 'well, now that I know that, I won’t proceed in setting up the probate.'  But that’s exactly what she did,” said Meisner. “This should not be some sort of money making conspiracy.”

Public Administrator Barbara Andruccioli declined to talk to us on camera about this. In an e-mail, she did tell us she’s no longer pursuing the sale of the home. 

She also admitted that even though she is the one responsible for finding the heirs, she said relied on PAR’s information - which did not include three of the four daughters.

At stake in the William Bostic estate: a house in Hazel Park.  Even though a family friend living in the home had been on a tax payment plan with the county, Roberts sold the house for $40,600. 

Andruccioli sent a fellow lawyer from Kemp Klein to close the estate with the Judge last week.

“This house was foreclosed on for tax reasons,” said Elisabeth Brin.  “All attorneys’ fees are necessary and true.”

But the Treasurer says that property was never foreclosed on.  And take note of the breakdown of who’s getting what from the sale of the house:

  • The one heir they tracked down is getting $12,936.63 from the estate.
  • Public Administrator Andruccioli’s bill totaled $3,454.63.

“Their duty is the heirs, but when you look at those fees, you have to question that,” said Clerk Lisa Brown.

Roberts’ Probate Asset Recovery started billing this estate more than a year before they got Andruccioli to open the case, and they racked up more than $11,137 dollars in fees, including $90 charges every time one of Roberts’ employees traveled to the court house. 

Kemp Klein Law Firm by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 Detroit on Scribd

PAR reduced their final bill to $7,280.

Probate Asset Recovery document by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 Detroit on Scribd

But that’s not all Ralph Roberts received. According to the settlement statement from the home sale, Roberts and his various companies made more than $4,948.59 - bringing Roberts and Anduccioli’s total take on this estate to $15,683. 

That’s more than the heir is receiving.

“Is this really the right thing to be doing,” Catallo asked Roberts in November 2016.

“Yeah, we follow the law,” said Roberts. “I’m doing great things for thousands of people. I’m getting them money.  I’m going to take this across the country. And I’m going to make probate great again!”

“I don’t know how people do that and live with themselves every day. It’s terrible,” said Joanne.

After we exposed a similar practice with Ralph Roberts and the Public Administrator in Macomb County, the Attorney General launched an investigation.

Until the law is changed, legal experts warn that if you don’t open an estate within 42 days of a loved ones’ death, either a creditor or a Public Administrator can open the estate, and they can take control of the assets.

Heather will have more on that Tuesday on 7 Action News at 6pm – and she’ll show you who’s stepping in to try to stop this from happening in the first place.

If this has happened to you, click here to file a complaint with the Michigan Attorney General.

Click HERE to file a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission.

If you have a story for Heather Catallo – please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.

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