After 40 years in the Long Island home where she raised two sons, Hertha Handler decided it was time to sell, but days before closing, the 73-year-old widow got a shock -- she didn't own it anymore.
The problem, Handler said, was that she had fallen behind in paying her tax bills on the Oyster Bay Cove home, worth nearly $1.2 million.
And she had accumulated multiple liens on her property of nearly $200,000.
Her husband had died years earlier, and she had not told her sons about the problem – Handler was determined to take care of it without troubling them.
“I have a difficult time asking for help," she said.
The owner of one of the smaller liens on the property – wealthy real estate investor Albert Kalimian – bought a $3,300 lien from the village of Oyster Bay Cove and then took possession of the property. Handler said she never saw it coming.
"For him to be able to come in and take the house that my parents had paid off and lived for 40 years for a few thousand dollars, that shouldn't happen,” said Handler’s son Christopher.
After the I-Team got involved, Kalimian agreed to a deal that is likely to get Handler her home back.
But experts say others might not be so lucky. In recent years, municipalities in New York have been allowed to make their own rules about liens and foreclosures.
In this case, Handler’s lawyer said not enough effort was made to tell his client that her home was being taken.
“There should have been a further effort to make sure that Hertha Handler was being advised that she was in serious jeopardy of losing title to her house,” said attorney Elias Schwartz. “They could have used a process server."
Kalimian’s attorney, Alan Davis, said in a statement that his client had followed proper legal procedure and that the village attorney approved the property transfer. The mayor of the Village of Oyster Bay Cove and the attorney who approved the land transfer declined comment.
Experts say many municipalities have few requirements for selling tax liens because holding onto them can be arduous.
"I would imagine 30 to 40 percent of the municipalities make it easy to collect on tax liens because they want to sell the liens, they don't want to hold them. It takes a long time and manpower they don't have," said Ed Klein, a Manhattan lawyer who has dealt with such cases.
The resolution between Handler and Kalimian is still in the works, but attorneys for both sides say they hope it will be resolved this week.
Attorneys said Kalimian accepted Handler's offer to pay the liens back with interest and reimburse him for his legal fees. Davis said when Kalimian acquired the deed, he was not aware Handler was an elderly widow.
But Klein said anyone who falls behind on mortgage or tax payments should be proactive about learning the lien procedures in their area.
"This is happening more and more," he said.