Metro Detroit real estate broker fails in taking home from rightful heirs

(WXYZ) - The 7 Investigators first exposed a troubling pattern of certain public officials and real estate brokers taking over estates, often selling homes that should belong to the rightful heirs.

On Wednesday, a key ruling from an Oakland County Probate Court judge means one local woman will be able to save the house she grew up in.

“I’m so relieved,” Joanne Zaremba said. “I couldn’t live with myself if I had lost the family home.”

Until the 7 Investigators discovered the case, Joanne and her sister, Gail, had no idea that a probate estate had been opened in their late mother’s name.

Joanne has been living in the Oak Park home since 2005 and she’s been on a tax payment plan with the Oakland County Treasurer to prevent foreclosure.

But someone else wanted that home: Real Estate Broker Ralph Roberts.

Roberts has been teaming up with state-appointed lawyers called Public Administrators to open probate estates.  Then his company called Probate Asset Recovery bills the estates for thousands of dollars while Roberts sells the homes.

“I find properties.  I believe there’s a benefit, so I then tell a public administrator, here’s the benefit there,” Roberts told Catallo in November 2016.

Legal experts say Public Administrators like Barbara Andruccioli from the Kemp Klein Law Firm are supposed to find the heirs before they open the estates.  Attorney Carol Kramer says that never happened.

“She has a duty to the estate, which means to the heirs of the estate. She’s completely failed on that.  She didn’t notify them properly.  She didn’t even try to figure out who they were,” said Kramer.

Today Kramer got Andruccioli and Probate Asset Recovery to walk away from this probate estate.

“There were a lot of people who had a lot of issues like this. But nobody had done anything about it.  Your persistence doing things has gotten the attention of the state Attorney General’s office, and the State Public Administrator,” said Kramer.

“Thank you to you [7 Action News] and Carol Kramer – I wouldn’t have known what to do.  It couldn’t have turned out any better,” said Zaremba.

“The role of the Public Administrator is to handle those estates where there are no known heirs,” said legal ethics expert Larry Dubin.  “If there are known heirs, then they should not necessarily get involved because then the heirs can take the responsibility and the interest in the way in which that estate is ultimately probated.  But assuming that the Public Administrator does undertake the representation of an estate, then the interests have to be what’s best for the estate.”

Now that we’ve exposed this practice, Attorney General Bill Schuette is suspending all Public Administrators from opening any new estates with homes that are in foreclosure or those that owe taxes.

Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner and Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown are trying to get new legislation passed in order to change the law so that the heirs of estates will be protected from these kinds of probate practices.

To protect homeowners and heirs, the Clerk also created a Property Records Notification System. You can subscribe to get free email alerts that will tell you whenever a document is recorded with the Oakland County Register of Deeds.  Early notice may help you prevent fraud.  You can sign up HERE.

If this has happened to you, click HERE to file a complaint with the Michigan Attorney General, who appoints Public Administrators.

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

Click HERE to file a complaint with the State of Michigan against a real estate agent/broker.

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

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