Mary’s Case

Sometime in 1957, Mary W. found a row home in South Philadelphia to rent for her expanding family. The house was owned by Alexander Dugan, a resident of Harrisburg. Mr. Dugan used a property management service to collect rents and every month Mary paid the management agent, Mr. Decker.

In November, 1974 Mary was informed by her attorney that Mr. Decker had not been able to locate Alexander Dugan for about one year. The agent told her to stop paying rent because he could not figure out where to send the money. Moreover, City tax and water bills were started to fall into arrears.

Mary consulted her family lawyer to figure out what to do in this unusual situation. He advised her that it would be foolish to assume that Mr. Dugan would continue to take care of repairs or water and sewer bills if he was not collecting rents.

From that time forward, Mary treated the property as her own. She made substantial improvements to the property and took care of all repairs. She paid water and sewer rents as well as real estate taxes. Her children and grandchildren always thought of the house as their family home.

By the late seventies, the City of Philadelphia changed billing information on tax accounts to Mary’s name. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s all of the bills were solely in the name of Mary. A real estate tax bill in 1980, e.g., bears the name of Mary. 27 years later, real estate bills still bore the name Mary.

Mary died in 2009, leaving behind adult children and grandchildren still living in the family home. They all came to think of the property as their family home, having paid bills, made improvements and not having heard from Mr. Dugan for more than thirty years.

Mary’s possession of the property was not a secret. Everyone in the neighborhood thought of the house as hers. The name on the deed still was Alexander Dugan. If he had already died and left heirs, none of those heirs had ever been in touch. No one every made claim to ownership other than Mary.

Barbara W. and Donna W. were Mary’s daughters. They were appointed as Administrators of Mary’s estate by the Office of Register of Wills of Philadelphia County on March 2, 2018. Mary and her heirs believed that their mother was the equitable owner of the property by her adverse possession of it for so many years. They believed that when their mother died the house became the property of their mother’s estate.

Barbara and Donna contacted attorney Mike Bomstein to find out what they could do about the family home. They also brought a folder filled with documentation confirming the bills that had been paid and the repairs and improvements that had been paid for by their mother while she was alive.

Bomstein was shown the original 1974 letter from Mary’s counsel explaining that there was no one to send rent to anymore. He began to investigate the whereabouts of Alexander Dugan in order to get to the bottom of the mystery as to why a landlord would stop collecting rents. He also engaged an experienced private investigator in order to locate Mr. Dugan. She learned that the landlord had died many years ago and that no heirs ever stepped forward to start an estate.

In March of 2018, Mike Bomstein began a quiet title lawsuit in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. The suit was based on the notion of “adverse possession” and it set out the reasons that Mary and her heirs were entitled to ownership of the property after all those years. The case went to trial in September, 2018. The Court reviewed the documents showing Mary had treated the property as her own and maintained it and paid taxes on it for decades. The Court also heard the testimony from her daughters that the property had been in the family since at least the late 1950’s and that everyone around thought of it as the W. home.

Having heard all of the evidence, the judge found in the family’s favor and entered an order. The order confirmed that Mary’s estate owned the row home and the Department of Records was directed to execute a new deed in favor of the W. estate and allow the family to record it. Needless to say, the new deed was recorded promptly!

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