Death of a family member, especially a parent, is not only extremely painful but it can also be expensive and leave their heirs in a legal nightmare and financial quagmire with no escape.
Meet the Murr family from Wisconsin. Back in the 1960s, William and Dorothy Murr purchased a pair of adjacent lots along the St. Croix River. Each lot was independently deeded. The Murrs built a cabin on one of the lots and decided to keep the other lot as an investment for the future.
After both William and Dorothy Murr died, property went to their children. By this time, the cabin had fallen into a dire need of repair. The Murr kids decided they would sell the vacant lot in order to pay for the repairs to the cabin.
That’s when their nightmare started.
According to Pacific Legal Foundation:
“Citing regulations that were enacted after both parcels were purchased, the government labeled the investment parcel ‘substandard’ even though it has a half acre of developable land, meets all environmental regulations and setbacks, and is surrounded by development on the same size parcels. Nevertheless, the county said they couldn’t sell or develop the investment parcel.”
“To avoid paying for a ‘taking’ of the vacant parcel, officials employed the fiction of treating both lots as if they were one—even though they are legally distinct and have always been taxed separately.”
The Murr family decided to fight and hoped the courts would side with them in their challenge of the Takings Clause. However, the courts did not agree and upheld the government’s right instead of the Murr’s right. Their case went all the way to the US Supreme, where it was heard and ruled on before the addition of Neil Gorsuch to the high court.
The 8-person Supreme Court voted 5-3 AGAINST the Murr family. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion:
“Treating the lot in question as a single parcel is legitimate for purposes of this takings inquiry, and this supports the conclusion that no regulatory taking occurred here.”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the dissenting opinion:
“Put simply, today’s decision knocks the definition of ‘private property’ loose from its foundation on stable state law rules. [The ruling] compromises the Takings Clause as a barrier between individuals and the press of the public interest.”
In a reaction to what happened to the Murr family, the Wisconsin legislature passed to protect land owners from falling into the same quagmire as the Murr’s. One of the bills sponsors was state Rep. Adam Jarchow, who stated:
“I was disappointed with the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s and the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings that changes to local zoning laws could essentially strip private property owners of their property rights without compensation. ‘The Homeowners’ Bill of Rights’ bill is meant to right that wrong by ensuring when people buy property, and they have expectations related to that property, their property rights and expectations are not taken away because of changing rules or regulations over time.”
Murr’s PLF attorney John Groen reacted to the news of the new Wisconsin bills, which were signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker, saying:
“All of us at Pacific Legal Foundation are very pleased with the legislative progress made today. Special thanks to Rep. Adam Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany for recognizing the need to restore property rights for the Murrs and the people of Wisconsin. Whether through the courts or the legislature, securing individual rights in property is fundamental to liberty. Today’s action advances liberty.”
Thanks to the Wisconsin legislators, the Murr’s now have the right to sell their second lot and make the needed repairs to the cabin. More importantly, the Wisconsin state legislature corrected a mistake made by the Wisconsin Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court.