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Woman, 78, could lose home in probate confusion

Marianne Blend thought she owned the Highland Park house that the county says she rents. It's set for auction Saturday, which she can appeal later.

April 26, 2013|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Marianne Blend was surprised when two big men put up an auction sign in her yard. She said the man she lived with for 27 years, who died in 2011, willed the house to her and that no property taxes are owed on it. But the county thinks she is a renter and that taxes are owed.
Marianne Blend was surprised when two big men put up an auction sign in her… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Marianne Blend learned she was in trouble about three weeks ago when she looked out the window of her Highland Park home and saw strangers placing a large sign in her frontyard.

"They were two big men, so I didn't go out there until they were gone," said the 78-year-old widow. "But when I did go out and looked at it, I couldn't believe it."

The sign announced that her 92-year-old clapboard cottage was being sold in a Superior Court probate auction scheduled for Saturday.

For Blend, it was stunning news. She thought she was the owner of the 780-square-foot Irvington Place house.

"My husband lived here 40 years before he died," she said. "I thought the house had been paid for a long time ago."

According to Blend, she and Fernando H. Neri lived together as husband and wife for 27 years after the death of his first wife. She and Neri met at a Van Nuys shop where he worked as a barber, she as a hairdresser. Before he died in 2011, she said, he wrote a will that left the tiny house to her.

Last year, after Blend first suffered a stroke and then serious burns when her clothes caught on fire as she warmed herself by the fireplace, a notice of a deadline to file an objection to the probate was mailed by Los Angeles County. But Blend said she was undergoing skin grafts when it arrived.

"It turns out they have me down as a renter instead of executor of the estate," said Blend.

Officials of the county's Public Administrator's office said the auction is required because of debts incurred by the estate. County records showed a delinquency on the 2011 property taxes on the house.

Although common-law marriages are not recognized in California — the state has a domestic partnership registry — probate courts pay close attention to hand-written, verifiable wills, officials said.

Blend said she has been told that the residence is not behind on its property tax. "We went to the tax assessor's office and were told we don't owe anything. I still have a bill from the hospital for about $1,000. Would they take the house for that?" she asked.

She said others in the Irvington Place neighborhood have joined in her effort to save her home. "The neighbors help me. They bring me breakfast every morning. They take me to the store and to church. They took me to the tax office," she said.

Neighbor Imelda Mireles said she's been friends with Blend for 17 years and frequently gives her rides to the store. "It's a bad situation for her. It's not right," Mireles said of the impending auction.

Alejandria Menjibar has lived next door to Blend since 1996. "She's a nice neighbor. But she's lonely and people take advantage of her," Menjibar said.

About two dozen potential buyers toured the two-bedroom house last Sunday during an auction preview showing. On Wednesday, another potential bidder showed up to take photos of the house.

"I'm looking for a house to live in. I saw this auction listing online last night," said Linda Manheim, a Westwood resident who works in real estate. Advised that Blend still lives in the house, Manheim abruptly changed her mind about submitting an offer.

"I won't be bidding. Absolutely not. That's bad mojo. This could be my mom, anybody's mom," she said.

But the auction is moving ahead just the same, though the winning bidder will have to go to court within 45 to 60 days for a confirmation hearing, said Craig Hendrickson, the county's chief deputy public administrator.

Hendrickson declined to discuss specifics of Blend's situation, including her assertion that a woman claiming to be Neri's daughter has suddenly stepped forward, but said she will have an opportunity at the court hearing to protest the sale.

Courts typically instruct the public administrator to work with a survivor-occupant to help arrange a loan, a reverse mortgage or some other remedy, he said.

Rhett Winchell, the listing agent for Saturday's auction, concurred that Blend will have an additional opportunity to fight any eviction.

As for Blend, she's hoping for the best.

"They're pushing me to move. They're hot to put me out. Some guy came by yesterday and asked me when I was leaving," she said.

"I'm an old lady who's all alone. Where will I go? Under a bridge somewhere?"

bob.pool@latimes.com

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