GenMassachusetts-L ArchivesArchiver > GenMassachusetts > 2003-01 > 1042892046
Subject: [GM-L] Boston Globe 1/18/03
Date: Sat, 18 Jan 2003 07:14:06 EST
This has alot of names and dates...hope it helps someone out there!!
A legal oversight decades ago leaves couple in a struggle to refinance their
By Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff, 1/18/2003
s surely as the wind stirs the dunes at Cahoon Hollow, a few miles away, the
ghost of Harriet Marsh Rice haunts the old clapboard house on Route 6 in
ds_big_5.swf" loop=false quality=best bgcolor=#FFFFFF WIDTH=336 HEIGHT=280
No one claims to have seen her shadowy form, with thick, white hair pulled
back in a bun, creeping across the floorboards. No one knows if she even
stepped over the threshold while she was alive.
She died in 1929 in a tiny Maine town, without a will, owning four-ninths of
the Wellfleet house. And that legal detail - apparently overlooked for
generations - has vexed the current owners since the early 1990s, forcing
them to prove the house is legally theirs.
The owners, Jane and Richard Tesson, are asking the state Land Court to rule
that the property - all of it - belongs to them. But under the state's
property laws, any potential property claim, no matter how ancient, cannot be
First, their lawyer and a genealogist spent years tracking down all living
heirs of Hattie Rice: at last count, 123 people, mostly clustered in Maine,
with a few sprinkled across the country. Then, the Tessons got a judge to
rule last year that those heirs had defaulted when they didn't respond to
their court summons.
''We all just thought it wasn't worth pursuing,'' said Virginia Cutler,
Rice's 87-year-old great-granddaughter who lives in North Reading and Maine.
Cutler's potential share of the property would have been less than 3 percent
- and because of her direct lineage from Rice, her share was among the
The Tessons must now prove that the property is legally theirs. Their lawyer,
Henry Thayer, is arguing that the Tessons rightfully own the property under
the principle of ''adverse possession,'' since they and the people they
bought the house from have openly lived there for the past 20 years.
Real estate lawyers say the couple's long, legal journey - with the high
number of heirs located - shows why the state needs to update its title laws.
After all these years, the Tessons still cannot do what they set out to
accomplish: refinance their house.
''Once you've got that interest on record, it never goes away,'' said Edward
Smith, legal counsel for the Massachusetts Conveyancers Association and a
real estate lawyer. ''We've gone back to the 17th century. These things can
really bedevil a title for a long period of time.''
A bill that has been languishing in the Legislature for more than a decade
was written to help solve the problem by ending property claims that haven't
been acted on in more than 50 years.
About 20 states have passed similar bills. And 1998 seemed like the year it
would finally pass in Massachusetts. The bill was approved by the
Legislature, but then-Governor Paul Cellucci took no action and it died.
Ironically, some of the most valuable property in the state today - on the
Cape, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket - fell victim to sloppy record-keeping
''People didn't pay much attention to conveying those lands the way you would
an urban area because the property wasn't considered valuable,'' said William
Southworth, a lawyer and the co-chair of the real estate legislative
committee of the Boston Bar Association.
The trouble for the Tessons, who bought their house in 1986, began in the
early 1990s when they decided to refinance, according to Thayer. The routine
check on their title turned up something that no one had apparently known for
decades: that Hattie Rice had never legally turned over her portion of the
house and its 30,000-square-foot lot.
Thayer started searching for heirs by taking out a 1996 legal notice in the
Globe, among the ads for used Hondas and lost pets. ''Hattie Rice!'' the ad
began. ''Where are your heirs?''
''I got a few phonies but they didn't fool me,'' Thayer said. ''People see
something like that and they smell money.''
He eventually hired a genealogist for more than $8,000 who spent years
researching the family and compiling an eight-foot-long family tree. One
relative apparently changed gender. Another allegedly married seven times
and, possibly living on an Indian reservation, is still missing.
Rice came from a very large family that held annual ''cousin parties,'' at
which dozens of Rices and their kin descended upon Waterford, Maine.
Many of the relatives were intrigued when they first heard that they might
have some claim to a house on the Cape from a long-dead forbearer. But when
they found out it was a single-family house bought for $48,000 by a couple
who merely wanted to refinance their mortgage, they were mostly sympathetic.
''I guess if anybody did inherit anything it would probably come out to about
a few cents,'' said Persis Millet, 75, of Waterford, Maine. Her husband,
Alfred, would have stood to claim about one-half of 1 percent of the
Rice was born in Boston in 1842, one of 10 children of Sarah Choate and Rufus
Marsh. She may have met her future husband, George B. Rice, when he took a
job working for her father, possibly in a delivery business, according to
some of her descendants.
After they married, George Rice took his bride to his family's farm in
Waterford, where his relatives were - and remain - so plentiful that there's
a ''Rice Hill.'' The land was given to the family by the federal government
in appreciation for services rendered during the American Revolution,
according to family lore.
Rice's relatives remember her through the haze of youth: a kindly woman who
loved to watch the town pass by from a second-story window in Waterford and
who danced well into her old age.
George and Hattie Rice had five children. Court records show that in 1916,
Hattie Rice, her brother, and another relative acquired the Wellfleet
property. Her descendants think she got involved as an investment or to help
out a relative.
When Rice died in 1929 at age 85, she was buried in North Waterford's
Woodlawn Cemetery. She apparently left no directive for how her share of the
Wellfleet property should be distributed.
''I doubt many people in Waterford had a will at that time,'' said Beatrice
Fitts, whose grandfather was George Rice's brother.
A 1923 portrait of Hattie Rice has been copied into the court records. Her
white hair is pulled back from her face and she's wearing round, wire-rimmed
glasses. She looks faintly annoyed, as if chagrined to find herself stuck in
the midst of this legal morass.
The Tessons, meanwhile, are waiting for the case to end, Thayer said. ''It's
a very modest little house,'' he said. ''But it's their house.''