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Dear Real Estate Adviser,

My soon-to-be ex-husband deeded our home to me a while ago. When I put it up for sale, the title had 5 judgment liens from credit card debt that my ex and his former wife (before me) neglected to repay. My ex is now paying the two in his name, but his earlier wife, who was on the title, disappeared and can’t be found to be served.

Do I retain a debt-settlement lawyer or real estate attorney to file a “quiet title” lawsuit? Time is of the essence. One buyer already terminated over the lien issue.

— Margaret

Dear Margaret,

If you had to choose between the two, you’d be better off hiring a tax-lien attorney — one who is experienced in “quiet title” actions and negotiations with creditors. An action to quiet title will help establish you as the rightful owner of the property. But pursuing such an action can be time-consuming (up to 9 months) and expensive, even if your lawyer could prove the liens were somehow obtained by duress, fraud or other unlawful means, which seems unlikely anyway.

Besides, those liens filed on your ex-hubby’s former wife mean that the credit card companies sued her and already won judgments, putting the force of law strongly on their sides.

Beware debt-settlement companies

As for those credit-card debt-settlement companies, they can be shady and typically won’t file lawsuits on your behalf. In fact, they tend to add various hidden fees to your bill and often make creditors reluctant to work with them. Some debt-settlement firms hire lawyers as front people, but they’re usually not active in settlement negotiations. Do some heavy, heavy online vetting of such firms if you choose to go this route.

You’re probably better off, frankly, using any money that you’d give to such companies to pay down your debt, consumer advocates say. Since your soon-to-be ex spouse’s name was on the title, the liens typically won’t come off unless paid off — or if you go into bankruptcy.

Talk to the lien holders

Have you discussed this with the lien holders yet? Most judgment creditors, particularly credit card companies, regularly settle these arrearages for considerably less than the full balance.

An added option is to structure your home sale so those credit card companies will get paid when escrow closes, assuming you have enough equity in the place to cover this. With the buying market tight in many cities, buyers might be willing to go along with this plan, given the proper contractual assurances — but you need to be upfront with them from the start. An experienced agent can take care of such arrangements, but the use of a real estate attorney is always advisable, if fiscally practical.

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Should you not be able to sell for enough to cover the remaining mortgage, liens and closing costs, that might put you in a short-sale situation.

Short of finding the ex’s ex by searching online databases or hiring a private detective — which still wouldn’t assure her cooperation — it looks like you’re stuck with these liens, I’m sorry to note.

Good luck!

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