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Settling Estates in DC: Dying Without a Will, the Probate Process, and Gentrification

Gentrification—the transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value—is a long-debated issue in the United States. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gentrification can lead to negative health consequences for affected individuals, including limited access to affordable housing, quality schools, transportation, social networks, and safe outdoor spaces for recreation and exercise.

In DC, the impact of gentrification on the socio-economic climate of the city remains significant, even if rates appear to be declining. According to a 2020 study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, gentrification occurred in 16.8% of eligible DC neighborhoods between 2013 and 2017, including Columbia Heights, Petworth, NoMa, Capitol Hill, Navy Yard, Anacostia, and Marshall Heights. This is significantly lower than the rate of gentrification in DC between 2000 and 2012 (41%). Even so, NCRC concluded that gentrifying in the district remains relatively high. Indeed, Washington DC ranks 13th in the nation for Most Intensely Gentrified City. (San Francisco, Denver, and Boston currently round out the top three.)

Like other social organizations, the NCRC considers gentrification “a significant threat to minority and [low-to-moderate income] families,” most notably because of its potential to displace long-time residents due to increasing rents, mortgages, and property taxes. According to the CDC, the causes of gentrification are “debatable.” Under DC laws, could dying without a will play a role?

Dying Without a Will: The Probate Process in DC

Dying “intestate” in Washington DC means that a person dies without a will. In these instances, the deceased person’s property then becomes “probate estate” and must be distributed according to DC law, rather than being distributed pursuant to a person’s last will and testament. The probate process can be complicated, especially for individuals who lack the funds necessary for legal representation. That said, probate estate should not go to the city so long as the deceased person has a living relative who can claim the estate, generally according to the following order:

  • A spouse or domestic partner
  • Children (Unlike in other jurisdictions, DC laws states that if there is a surviving spouse as well as surviving children, the spouse will not get the full share of their loved one’s estate)
  • Father and mother
  • Siblings
  • Aunts, uncles, and first cousins
  • Grandparents
  • Any other closest living relatives

Deaths without wills are not a simple matter of distributing assets among relatives, however. According to the Office of the Register of Wills, the deceased person’s next of kin first must file a petition for probate and be appointed a personal representative by the Court. As the personal representative, this individual has several important duties. Chief among them, the personal representative must: 

  • Collect the decedent’s assets
  • Pay or resolve any legally enforceable debts, claims, or bills and the expenses of the probate estate proceeding
  • File the decedent’s final tax returns
  • Prepare an Inventory and accounts, including a final account, and finally
  • Distribute the assets to the persons entitled to receive them

Personal representatives are also responsible for paying any property taxes. In this case, failure to do so could possibly result in the forfeiture of the property to the city. 

Abandoned Property in DC—What Happens?

If dying without a will doesn’t inherently contribute to the growing gentrification of Washington D.C., the district’s handling of abandoned properties and eminent domain might, at least in some instances. Recent estimates suggest there are roughly 1,200 abandoned properties throughout DC. Some have been reclaimed via abandoned property sales and abandoned housing lotteries, many of which come with the contingency that the buildings must be renovated to code and lived in for a given period of time. 

According to DC law Code 41–103, a person’s property—including but not limited to a home—is presumed abandoned if it remains unclaimed for more than 3 years after it became payable or distributable. Since many of these vacant buildings are located in some of the city’s poorer areas, it’s possible that these transactions could contribute to the ongoing gentrification seen throughout the city. 

Eminent domain is also legally allowed in DC under DC Code 9-909. This happened as recently as February 2021, when the city used eminent domain to transfer a property to itself at the intersection of New York Avenue, NE, Florida Avenue, NE, and First Street, NE. According to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is planning to redesign the intersection to improve the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers.

Transfer of property to the city might be welcome news when it involves certain notorious properties like this intersection. But eminent domain in DC does not always come without controversy. In November 2018, a trash transfer station in the Brentwood neighborhood was shuttered due to a unanimous vote in favor of eminent domain from the DC Council. But the property owner claims he wasn’t even made aware of the plans until the media alerted him the day before.

And just a few months earlier in June 2018, district officials appealed a Supreme Court decision ordering DC to pay $32 million to commercial real estate company Akridge, after taking its Buzzard Point property via eminent domain in order to build a new soccer field; Akridge contends they were not fairly compensated by the district for what the property was worth. 

Final Thoughts

Navigating the complex intestate succession laws in DC can be challenging, and it almost certainly requires legal help. Assuming this help is available, any probate estate from a loved one who died without a will should not be forfeited to the District—so long as living relatives are available to file appropriate documentation and take care of the associated fees, legal proceedings, and distribution priorities.

However, there are still situations in which the city may take control of a property even if there are living heirs, such as is the case of eminent domain or property abandonment. 

With rising property values and ongoing gentrification throughout the district, it’s imperative to help DC residents protect their assets and beneficiaries in the event of their death. Readers are invited to reach out to their community nonprofit organizations such as the Legal Counsel for the Elderly and the Christian Legal Aid of DC, who offer free or reduced-cost legal services to low-income individuals in the DC area. 


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