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Evicting the elderly

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For decades, Betty C. Museus lived alone in a one-story home on Park Street in Missoula. She had no close family and rarely answered the door. Passersby periodically spotted her in the window.

"She looked like a very lonely individual," says Missoula City Councilman Jon Wilkins, who helped Museus with chores.

When Wilkins saw a "For Sale" sign in front of Museus's house this past summer, he assumed the elderly woman had died. But he found out otherwise: an investment company evicted Museus for failing to pay her property taxes.

Virginia-based Mooring Tax Asset Group took ownership of the Museus property through what's called the "tax-deed process," a legal mechanism that allows a third party to pay an outstanding property tax bill and assume ownership.

According to Missoula County records, Museus stopped paying taxes on the property, now valued at roughly $150,000, in 2004. In 2006, MTAG paid the outstanding $5,822.09 tax debt and asked Missoula County for the deed on the house, as state law allows. MTAG's deed request triggered a 36-month "redemption period," in which Museus could have paid the liens and stopped her home from being taken.

Museus, however, wasn't answering mail. "From our records, she was unable to communicate with us at all," says MTAG President Jim Meeks.

Museus, a former music teacher, recently moved to an assisted living facility in East Missoula. She'd lost all the equity in her home.

She was especially vulnerable because of her age and the fact that she had no immediate family to look out for her, says Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent, who launched an inquiry into the eviction earlier this month. While MTAG's maneuver is legal, Nugent says, forcing a woman to leave the home she's inhabited for decades is morally repugnant. "Something is amiss in my mind...As a society, we should be concerned."

Nugent is asking the Montana Legislature to mandate stricter scrutiny of the tax deed process, by, for instance, requiring that those in jeopardy of losing property get an in-home visit from an appointed conservator capable of explaining financial options. In Museus's case, that could have been a reverse mortgage, Nugent says.

When contacted by the Independent Oct. 17, MTAG's Meeks said the company intends to forward cash from the home sale to Museus.

Nugent, however, remains skeptical. He says that's the first he's heard of such a commitment. "I hope their representation is true and will be fulfilled," he said.

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