CAMBRIDGE — For almost 40 years, Marcelle Harrison’s family has lived in a three-story light-gray home near Central Square. For a time, four generations slept under the same roof.
But when Harrison’s stepfather and mother — Barbadian immigrants Noel and Richlene Aimes — died, neither left a will. And on the day before Thanksgiving, Harrison learned she stood to lose her longtime home to a group of relatives she barely knew.
A letter from a state-appointed lawyer delivered the devastating news: Harrison, 64, was not the rightful heir to the home that her mother and stepfather had bought for $23,000 in 1980, now valued at more than $1 million.
Noel Aimes, who never learned to read and write, wanted the house to stay in the family, and in the 1990s proudly built additions to accommodate its growing numbers, Harrison said. But because he died two years after his wife and didn’t name a beneficiary, state law allows his blood relatives — specifically his nieces and nephews in Barbados — to claim the house over a stepchild.
“Since you were not an heir-at-law, your appointment is in jeopardy of being set aside,” wrote Gayle Stone-Turesky, a Boston lawyer who was appointed by the state as a public administrator, who is brought in to handle estates where there is no will and no blood heir living in the state.
A lawyer for Harrison’s relatives said they are likely to sell the property once they seize control, an outcome that could lead to further gentrification of a neighborhood once known for its rich community of immigrant, working-class families.
It is a predicament that has outraged Harrison’s neighbors, who have helped her hire a lawyer, accompanied her to court, and are contacting elected officials in hopes of finding a way the family can keep their home.
“We are sick about it,” said Jean Cummings, 59, one of Harrison’s longtime neighbors. “It’s just so unjust.”
State Representative Michael Connolly, who lives across the street from Harrison, has reached out to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office for advice.
“It shocks the conscience to think that this low-income, Barbadian family could be displaced, really out of the blue,” Connolly said.
Ashburton Place is a narrow, dead-end street where neighbors help shovel each other out, share neighborhood gossip, and hold cookouts in the summer. The Harrisons have lived there the longest.
“We even let our dogs poop in each other’s yards,” said Nancy Ryan, one of Harrison’s neighbors.
Harrison, meanwhile, is terrified and unsure of where her family, which includes her husband, a daughter, three granddaughters (one of whom is 3), and a nephew and his young family will live if they lose the home.
“There is no word to describe what I’m feeling or what they’ve put me through,” Harrison said. “I’m not sleeping, not eating. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to die in my sleep because I’m so stressed out.”
The case hinges on a centuries-old law known as intestate, which generally favors blood relatives over relationships formed through time and mutual affection. Had Richlene Aimes died after her husband, the house would unquestionably belong to Harrison, said James Gardner Long III, Harrison’s lawyer. But without a will, Harrison’s status as a stepdaughter makes her essentially a stranger to Noel Aimes, whom she bathed and fed as he became more and more infirm from diabetes, he said.
“There are no feelings, no empathy in [the law],” Long said. “It doesn’t say you’ve put all this time and energy into the home. It just looks at the kinship chart.”
Ilana Hurwitz, who teaches trust and estate law at Boston University School of Law, said Harrison’s case is all too common, pointing to celebrities such as Prince and Aretha Franklin who died without wills, leaving relatives scrambling to figure out how to divide their fortunes.
“For the most part, intestate succession is predicated on blood ties and not relationship,” she said. “That may have heartbreaking consequences.”
The relatives in Barbados are planning to sell the property, according to Hyman Darling, a Springfield lawyer who was first contacted by them.
Darling said they learned about the property through an heir finder, a sort of online sleuth who tracks “lost” estates for possible heirs in exchange for a fee. Darling declined to say when the relatives in Barbados first reached out to him, but he said the law makes Harrison’s situation clear.
“She doesn’t have the right to be there legally,” Darling said. “The bottom line is she’s a stepdaughter. Until the Commonwealth changes the law, the stepdaughter doesn’t have any rights.”
Darling also works as a public administrator, but because he’s in Hampden County he referred the case to Stone-Turesky, a lawyer at Sugarman Rogers in Boston and one of five public administrators in Middlesex County.
Stone-Turesky, the sister of state Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, also a lawyer at Sugarman Rogers, did not return several e-mails and messages left at her office seeking comment.
Aimes’s relatives in Barbados could not be reached for comment. Harrison said Noel Aimes was not particularly close to his siblings, except for one sister.
A photo of the couple’s wedding in Barbados shows Richlene Aimes’s family, including Harrison, flanking the couple. Except for the sister, no one from Noel Aimes’s side of the family attended the wedding, Harrison said.
When the pair moved to Boston, Noel Aimes occasionally sent money to his sister but had little to no contact with the rest of his siblings, Harrison said. One niece came to Boston about a decade ago on her way to New York to get some cash from Noel Aimes, Harrison said.
Noel Aimes’s sister died in 2001. It is her daughter, the niece who visited Boston once, as well as his remaining siblings and their children who are laying claim to the house, Harrison said.
Harrison said this isn’t what her stepfather, who died in 2011 from complications of diabetes, would have wanted.
“He would be rolling” in his grave, Harrison said. “Rolling.”
Ryan, the neighbor, recalled how excited Noel Aimes was when he built the additions on his house.
“He was building a home for his family,” Ryan said. “That’s what he lived for.”
For Harrison, staying in the home permanently appears to be unlikely unless she can work out an arrangement with her stepfather’s relatives or raise enough money to buy the property from them. Her neighbors are urging her to start a GoFundMe page.
She has a strong case to be reimbursed at least for the taxes she paid on the property, any improvements she made to the house, and even her care of Noel Aimes in his final days, said Mary Clements Pajak, a partner at Pierce Atwood in Boston who specializes in probate and family law.
“Depending on what that amount adds up to, it may give her leverage to exchange her services for the value of the home and keep the home instead of cash,” said Pajak, who is not connected to the case.
Ryan said Stone-Turesky has agreed to meet with Harrison on Feb. 11. The hope is to work out a resolution that keeps Harrison on Ashburton Place, Ryan said.
“I just want to stay in the house where I was living for 39 years,” Harrison said. “That’s all I want.”