Inheriting a house is a bittersweet, overwhelming experience.

I remember receiving the deed that transferred ownership of my mother’s home to me and my siblings. I felt a whirlwind of emotions: sadness that my mother was gone, relief that the complicated process was over and trepidation for the enormous responsibilities that lay ahead. Along with those feelings was the compelling need to honor her legacy. Here are six lessons I learned from inheriting my mother’s house.

1. Discuss estate planning with your parents while you can

Inheriting a house is a process that should begin well before a parent dies. While discussing end-of-life topics can be uncomfortable, the conversations must happen before it’s too late. I remember asking my mother what would happen to her home when she passed away: “The three of you will get it,” she said matter-of-factly, referring to me, my brother and my sister.

It’s a common misconception that children automatically inherit a house when a parent dies without a will. While a spouse and children are typically first in line to inherit a home, this is not always the case: State laws determine who gets the assets, and laws vary depending on the jurisdiction.

After several more probing questions, I realized that, while she knew what she wanted, my mother didn’t yet have a will or an estate plan. A week later, I took her for a consultation with a lawyer I found in the Yellow Pages. (Yes, I’m dating myself — this was well before Google Reviews and Yelp were popular.) About a month after the initial visit, we left the lawyer’s office with a copy of my mother’s official will.

When she eventually passed away, I was confident that I had taken the appropriate steps for her to transfer her home to her children. However, as I soon learned, there were more lessons in store.

2. A will should be an evolving document

Once my mother outlined her intentions in her will, our work was done, right? Wrong. A will is not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of document. I realize now that I should have encouraged her to update her will as family circumstances changed.

I realize now that I should have encouraged my mother to update her will as family circumstances changed. — Linda Bell, Senior Writer, Bankrate

In the will, my mother left her home to me, my brother and my sister in three equal shares. However, my sister is disabled, and through the years, her disability progressed, rendering her unable to care for herself. Although my mother wished for my sister and her two sons to continue residing in the family home, she never specified this in the will.

“Anytime there’s a major life change, [or] every three to five years, you should look at [the will]  to see if the rules that you put in place still apply to the life that you have now,” says Monique D. Hayes, an attorney with DGIM Law in South Florida and founder of Estates Made Easy, a digital estate planning platform. “People change. Children’s situations change. Personalities change. Anything can happen in the interval.”

3. Put everything between you and the other heirs in writing

If heirs can’t agree on the details of inheriting a parent’s house, it can strain relationships and lead to legal complications.

“It’s always tricky when you’ve got multiple siblings,” says Leila Evans, a certified financial planner and regional president of MAI Capital Management in Charlotte, North Carolina. “You all have different lives, different needs and different stages that you’re in. If the parent says the house will go to the three of you, you know it is coming — you begin to think about if anyone wants the house and [whether] a particular child can afford it.”

My brother and I agreed to keep our mother’s house and let our sister and nephews continue living there. We also agreed to assume the significant expenses associated with the house, like property taxes and repair costs. But legal experts say our agreement should have gone beyond words.

“The plan needs to work past you and your siblings,” says Hayes. “God forbid something happens to you, then your sibling has to negotiate the terms with your spouse or your children. They may not get along the same way you and your siblings do. I still recommend, even after the fact, that you document the agreement, review it, make sure it still works over time, and then make any changes you need to.”

“You need good records, no matter how well siblings get along,” says Evans. “Keep a detailed spreadsheet and accounting of what you spent and what your brother spent, so that when the house is sold, you can settle up.”

4. Plan ahead to avoid probate

I regret not discussing alternatives for handing down my mother’s home, like a revocable trust, with her while she was still alive. Also known as a living trust, the trust process allows people to pass on assets quickly — and, crucially, privately. While living trusts are typically more expensive to set up than wills, they let inheritors bypass probate, which is a definite plus.

With a revocable trust, the deed of the home is assigned to the trust while the owner is still alive, says Allison Dolzani, an estate-planning attorney at Julie Kessler, LLP, in New York City. “By re-recording the deed to the trust, you maintain complete control of [the home] during your lifetime. But at death, whoever you named as the trustee — which is akin to an executor in a will — will step into your shoes without court involvement. It’s a real time saver.”

I learned firsthand why probate gets a bad rap. The process is not only time-consuming and costly, but it can also be intrusive. — Linda Bell, Senior Writer, Bankrate

Almost a year and several thousands of dollars later, I learned firsthand why probate gets a bad rap. Probate is a court-supervised legal process that ensures debts are paid and assets are distributed according to the instructions outlined in a will. The process is not only time-consuming and costly, but it can also be intrusive.

I can’t tell you how many phone calls and letters I received from investors touting as-is all-cash offers for my mother’s home. “These companies will search the court records, and when you file documents to probate a will, they all become part of the public record,” Dolzani says. “What goes into the petition is all the details of the will, the will itself and the contact information of the people who are probating the will, the next of kin and the beneficiaries.”

On two occasions, a man even showed up unannounced at my home — which is not even located in the same state — inquiring about my mother’s property. I could have avoided that, and maintained my privacy, if we’d thought to put a trust in place.

5. Be prepared for financial surprises

My siblings and I were lucky in that the house we inherited doesn’t have a mortgage anymore, so we don’t have to worry about that monthly expense. But even so, between property taxes, basic maintenance and utility costs, an inherited home can quickly change from a blessing to a burden for some people.

For example, after my mother’s passing, I faithfully paid the quarterly property taxes. However, immediately after we exited probate, I was surprised to receive a $3,500 tax bill in the mail. The bill was for property tax deductions applied to my mother that we, as the new owners, apparently shouldn’t have received.

I have handled extra expenses such as these by putting my emergency fund into overdrive. I have double the amount of Bankrate’s recommended three to six months worth of expenses in two separate savings accounts — one for my own home and one for hers. I’ve been able to increase my savings by scheduling automatic transfers from my checking account to my savings accounts and cutting back on spending.

6. Inheriting a parent’s house means balancing legacy with capability

Inheriting a house from a parent who has passed is more than acquiring a valuable asset. For me, it is also about honoring my mother’s legacy.

As the racial wealth gap shows us, Black people in America are less likely to own their homes or receive an inheritance than white people. At the end of 2022, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond found that the median white household held almost nine times as much wealth as the median Black household.

Yet, my mother — a Haitian immigrant who bought a home with my father in the 1980s, when mortgage rates were at record highs — owned her home outright by the time she was 64. That home climbed significantly in value, and when she passed away, she transferred that generational wealth to her children.

Inheriting a house from a parent who has passed is about more than acquiring a valuable asset. For me, it's also about honoring my mother's legacy. — Linda Bell, Senior Writer, Bankrate

“The legacy of a family is about more than dollars and cents and assets and properties,” says Hayes. “It’s about the more important values, that work ethic, that cultural history that allowed your family to sustain itself and thrive over the years.”

While legacy and sentiment are honorable, Hayes stresses that wealth can be a burden as well. All too often, she says, she has seen family members hold onto inherited homes or businesses because they feel they have no other choice.

But my siblings and I do have a choice. If we sell, I understand the capital gains taxes I might owe on the profits, and the difficulties I may face in securing an affordable home for my sister and nephews in today’s housing market. And if we don’t sell, I’m also aware of the unavoidable property taxes and tens of thousands of dollars in much-needed repairs I’ll face.

Nevertheless, I’m financially and emotionally prepared for the challenges of keeping my mother’s home. I will fulfill her wishes as long as I’m capable. I wouldn’t have it any other way.