Return of city-owned properties near end of 10-year limitation
By Felice Wilson and Vojtech Saman
"Some properties are still registered under the names of the original owners," said Alena Stumpfova, a self-employed lawyer. "It is therefore possible to reclaim them, as the rights of the original owners continue."
Many of these properties were confiscated by the Third Reich and restituted after World War II. Their owners, mostly Jews who fled before 1939, either never returned or abandoned their properties when the communists took power.
The communist state administered, but didn't nationalize, these properties, leaving the owner's name in the property register. In some cases, ownership transfers were not recorded or were made illegally.
"Under communism, there was a huge disorder in filing ownership. It was a huge mess," said Jirina Bohmova, director of the Finance Ministry's department of restitution and property. "There was no reason to keep track of what was owned: Nothing belonged to anyone."
Many of these problems occurred, she said, because of political reasons and because people were not doing what they should have been doing.
"When the state has taken possession of a property from someone who has died, this is illegal," said Jaroslav Horky, director of Horren real estate agency, who has made a business of sorting out sloppy records. "You can't confiscate something from a dead person."
Since the state didn't confiscate these properties, claims are not bound by restitution rules and deadlines. Instead, they usually take the form of inheritance proceedings, since most of the original owners have died.
"If Mr. Novak owned a piece of property somewhere in the country and in 1950 it was put into a collective farm, he may have died without that property ever being nationalized or the title ever having passed to the state," said Tomas Hruby, a Czech-Canadian lawyer who specializes in restitution. "His children or grandchildren, regardless of their citizenship, could now inherit that property from Mr. Novak."
There are no specific deadlines for inheritance claims, and heirs need not be Czech citizens or permanent Czech residents -- two controversial requirements for restitution seekers. But one legal roadblock waits just around the corner.
In 1991, under Law 172, the state transferred ownership of certain properties to municipalities, including some still registered to the original owners. Claimants were given 10 years after the law went into effect to contest the transfer, and that period is about to expire.
Claimants should file before the end of this year, Stumpfova advised.
"Cities and towns want to have closure at some point," said Hruby. "They need to deal with properties where the title is unclear." He added that the 10-year delay is far more generous than restitution deadlines.
Lawyers estimate that up to 100 properties could be reclaimed, but heirs living abroad are unaware and out of reach. "They don't know this legal environment," said Horky. "Often they don't speak Czech."
Horky noticed irregularities in the property register in the mid-1990s. He realized that if he could locate heirs and coordinate their legal claims, he could help correct past injustices while making a profit.
He recruited Stumpfova to represent claimants and a London-based genealogy expert who has an agency called Search and Unite, David Lewin, to head up the manhunt. The trio, which charges 30 percent of a property's market value on contingency, has done detective work on about 90 cases in two years.
Cases may run from simple ones with one building and one owner, to cases in which there are 17 owners of one building or an owner with interests in several buildings, Horky said.
The only expert team actively tapping this forgotten market has signed agreements with 47 clients and successfully recouped nine properties so far. They're working fast to find as many heirs as possible before the year's end.
"The chance for reclaiming property is nearly 100 percent," said Stumpfova, "if the person acts in time and there are no legal catches."
Those who remember grandma's stories of childhood at the family's Czech estate or farmhouse are starting to approach the team on their own, finding them through Lewin's Web site, www.remember.org/unite.
Much of the detective work is done in Prague, searching for evidence of legal mistakes or invalid ownership transfers in the property register.
The biggest clues hang on bulletin boards. When an entity is interested in gaining the title to a property still registered to the original owner, the local court posts a notice for six months calling for heirs.
"If no heirs turn up, the property goes to the city, which can then sell it," said Stumpfova.
Horky and Stumpfova pass the owners' names to Lewin, who tracks down relatives.
Too good to be true
But for many, about one-third of those contacted, the news is too good to be true. "I've encountered people who simply hang up the phone because they think I'm joking," said Lewin. "Others reject me and say they want nothing to do with it."
Bitter experience and misunderstanding deter others. "We tell them there's a property registered in their name and we can help them get it back," said Horky. "But they think we're lying because they've already tried and were rejected. They were told that all the deadlines have passed."
Courts turned away some petitioners in the past, citing international treaties signed between Czechoslovakia and about 25 destination countries of Czech immigrants, including the United States, Canada and Great Britain. Under the treaties, the Czechoslovak state paid foreign governments a sum to settle restitution claims of people without Czech citizenship whose property had been nationalized or expropriated after 1945.
Stumpfova cries foul. "An international agreement cannot abolish ownership," she said. "Property transfers are invalid, and the original owner continues to be the owner."
As if all that were not enough, there is another tangle. From the early 1960s through the early 1990s, "transfers of ownership did not have to be registered on title," Hruby explained. Thus, ownership may have been validly transferred according to the laws of the day, but the original owners are still on the register.
"And the heirs, despite the fact that their ancestors were recorded on the title, would have great difficulty reclaiming that property."
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