This post uses my guest stint to try to collect information for a project about the inheritance and management of family cottages. As the graphic suggests, at least my inquiries are seasonally-appropriate!
I began to think about family cottages in an academic way last summer. While browsing in a small resort town, I saw the local bookstore had more than 20 copies of a text entitled Saving the Family Cottage on its reserve shelf. When I commented on the book’s apparent popularity, the shopkeeper informed me that it was outselling the new Harry Potter. I was intrigued, but not surprised. In this place where visitors boast about the length of their family’s connection to the town, discussions about the fates of family cottages are popular pastimes.
Family cottages go by many names. They are called summer houses, or cabins, or referred to by their location: the lake, the Cape, up north, the shore. They are where families gather to vacation, often at the same time year after year; where grandchildren visit their grandparents; and where cousins play with cousins. As Professors Judith Huggins Balfe and Kenneth Huggins have explained, they are “‘family houses,’ sometimes more than the year-round home” and often “the places of our strongest memories, childhood and adult.” Some of these properties are grand and others are modest. Some are owned by wealthy families, others by families who could not afford them but for an investment made by an ancestor.
Notwithstanding its sentimental glory, the family cottage can be a source of tremendous angst about what will happen when its current owners die, or how the place is currently used and managed, or both. In the absence of more sophisticated estate planning, at some point these cottages are likely to be governed by the law of a tenancy in common. That is, the property is devised in equal shares to siblings, who may hold the cottage long enough to pass it on to their children, and so forth. My project explores the norms and traditions that govern these sorts of households, the role that property law plays, and what, if any, legal reforms should be made in this context.
So here’s my first request: if you are involved in a family cottage, tell me your story. How many generations has the property been in your family? How do you handle carrying costs, improvements, scheduling and use? Is your cottage governed by a tenancy-in-common or other legal arrangement? Is your arrangement rocky or smooth? Some first-rate sociology has been done in this area already, but I would like to supplement with some casual empiricism. So write a comment or send me an email at email@example.com. (One of the things I’ve been struck by while working on this project is how many people have a story to tell.)
Here’s my second request: if you are attorney who advises clients about family cottages, I’d be very interested in talking to you about the sort of advice you give and the legal vehicles you tend to favor. Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can get in touch.
P.S. For the uninitiated, a “fudgie” is a person who vacations in northern Michigan. A “flatlander” is a tourist from Illinois. Sometimes (as here) these terms are used with affection, but usually they are not intended to be kind!