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The dirty truth about contaminated inheritances

On Behalf of | May 24, 2017 | Firm News |

Creating an estate plan seems simple. You meet with an attorney, draw up your documents and sign them. Then, when your life is over, your children inherit your property, and everyone is happy. However, it doesn’t always work out so neatly, especially when loved ones realize the property they inherited is contaminated.

This realization may come when your heirs try to sell the property, make improvements or receive complaints from a neighbor. Unfortunately, the law places responsibility for toxic cleanup firmly on the shoulders of the present owners.

After someone has treated the earth like dirt

You certainly don’t want to leave your children with the legacy of potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in environmental cleanup. Most often, this contamination occurs in soil and water and is the result of leaking petroleum tanks, poorly stored chemicals or asbestos disposal, among other things. There may be contamination on your property if, in the past, it held certain operations, including:

  • Dry cleaning business
  • Auto repair shop
  • Junk yard
  • Gas station
  • Mine
  • Rail yard
  • Industrial businesses of other kinds

Cleaning the toxic contamination yourself is risky because, if you do it improperly, you may end up with a bigger mess than when you started. In addition, those owning neighboring properties may decide to take action against you if the contamination spreads. You may qualify for assistance from state or county-funded environmental programs available in some states, including New Jersey. Additionally, under some circumstances, you may be able to sue the previous owner for the cost of cleanup.

If cleaning up the contamination is not a possibility for you, you may consider establishing a trust fund for your heirs to undertake the project when they inherit the land. Another option is to sell the property as is — disclosing the contamination — and offer the money instead of the property to your heirs.

Coming clean

If you know or suspect that there is contamination on your property, passing it along to your heirs may create costly and frustrating issues for them. Clearing a contaminated site is difficult and often involves many agencies to ensure a safe and thorough cleanup. Your heirs may be unable to sell it or find themselves embroiled in legal battles if someone does purchase it while it is still contaminated.

When making your estate plan, you will want to mention your suspicions of contamination to your attorney so you can address those matters from a legal standpoint. Having an attorney with extensive experience in estate planning, real estate transactions and contamination issues will ensure that all your needs are met at once.