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Selling dead people’s houses can be a lucrative business for probate administrators, lawyers, real estate agents and flippers in Southern Nevada. But often the heirs get nothing.

Selling dead people’s homes lucrative for some. But what about the heirs?

Updated February 9, 2024 - 2:01 pm

After Essie Walker died in the summer of 2019, it wasn’t long before someone staked a claim on her house.

Thomas G. Moore, a man with no ties to the family, filed court papers to take control of Walker’s estate six months after the 84-year-old woman’s death.

He later sold her home in Las Vegas’ Historic Westside, and the one-story, 1960s-era property proved a big money-maker. Walker’s probate case generated more than $20,000 in legal fees, real estate commissions and administrator fees — and the home buyer, who helped cover those costs, flipped the renovated house within months for more than $90,000 above his purchase price, records show.

Walker’s son, Robert Lee, recalled he was told he might get some money through the case, and he got on board with Moore’s efforts a few weeks after the outsider sought court authority to manage his mom’s estate.

But Moore’s lender-approved sale left no money for the family, court records show, and Lee and his wife, Veronica Gisendaner, confirmed they didn’t receive a dime.

When told about the fees people earned, Gisendaner said, “We feel like we got screwed.”

Clark County probate court has for years been a lucrative arena to profit off the dead. A cottage industry of private administrators, real estate agents, lawyers and house flippers reaped hefty paydays selling homes across Southern Nevada after the owners died. The probate cases routinely started without family participation and often ended with nothing for heirs, a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation found.

Robert Lee and his wife, Veronica Gisendaner, outside their house on Friday, Oct. 13, 2023, in ...
Robert Lee and his wife, Veronica Gisendaner, outside their house on Friday, Oct. 13, 2023, in Las Vegas. After Lee’s mother died, a private administrator sold her house through probate court. He said he received no proceeds from the sale. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @ellenschmidttt

Under Nevada law, virtually anyone can swoop in to sell a dead person’s house with limited court oversight. Two prolific private administrators — Moore, founder of Estate Administration Services, and his probate successor, real estate agent Cynthia “Cyndi” Sauerland of Compass Realty & Management — were involved with at least 500 probate cases combined in Clark County over the last several years.

In nearly 400 of those cases, they initially stated they couldn’t identify or communicate with heirs. They also obtained court authority more than 460 times to sell homes through a process that doesn’t require court approval of the deal or competitive bidding that could boost the sales price, an analysis of District Court records dating to 2016 shows.

Moreover, the duo frequently sold homes at steep discounts to estimated values — often to the same circle of investors who resold the properties within months.

Their three biggest buyers flipped more than 130 homes for $13.4 million above the combined purchase price, the newspaper’s nine-month investigation found.

Moore, who is 41 and now lives in Washington state, generated more than $900,000 for heirs across roughly 30 cases in Southern Nevada, court records show. But in at least 285 cases, he indicated in court filings that he was unable to recover any money for heirs, often because he sold homes for less than what was owed on the dead owner’s mortgage in lender-approved “short sales.” Other times the homes went into foreclosure.

Still, his casework paid out more than $2 million in real estate commissions, over $1.2 million in legal fees and more than $300,000 in administrator fees.

His cases also generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for services with vague descriptions in court records that some Southern Nevada probate lawyers, and a few real estate agents with short-sale experience, had never heard of, the Review-Journal found.

Casework

Thomas Moore of Estate Administration Services and his probate-work successor, Cynthia Sauerland of Compass Realty & Management, collectively managed hundreds of probate cases in Clark County District Court.

Here are ten of them.

‘A service to the community’

Moore, Sauerland and their associate Adam Fenn of Compass — who bought at least two dozen homes through probate from Sauerland and flipped most of them — contend they are helping solve the problem of abandoned houses.

Empty buildings in Southern Nevada are prone to being taken over by squatters, falling into disrepair and even going up in flames. Many of the homes sold through probate were abandoned, at risk of foreclosure and dilapidated, the group said.

In one case, Sauerland sold a house through probate to Compass owner Takumba Britt after local officials deemed it unsafe to occupy.

“It’s a service to the community,” Sauerland said. “It’s not just, ‘Everybody’s running around making money.’”

Fenn said that many heirs had washed their hands of the situation and that his group helps neighbors who live near problem homes. He declined to say how they find properties left by the dead.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT PROBATE SALES

Big fees for selling dead people’s houses

Selling dead people’s homes can be a lucrative business in Las Vegas — even though families of the deceased might get nothing.

Clark County’s most prolific private administrator on record for the past decade, Thomas G. Moore, sold 230-plus homes through probate court. But on at least 164 occasions, he reported having nothing to distribute to heirs because he sold the home for less than what was owed on the mortgage in a lender-approved short sale, a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation found.

Still, his cases generated at least $2.9 million in legal fees, real estate commissions and other payments, including some reimbursements, from the sales proceeds, according to an analysis of District Court records.

Redjep Abdul, left, is seen in this undated photo with his daughter Debbie Erbach. After Abdul died in 2020, real estate agent Cynthia Sauerland obtained court approval to manage his estate and sold his house in Henderson. (Courtesy: Debbie Erbach)

His casework also produced payments for services that, as listed in court filings, were a mystery to some probate lawyers and real estate agents with short-sale experience.

Moore, who is 41 and now lives in Washington state, said in an email that short sales are subject to an “extreme” approval and audit process with lenders and insurers.

“It’s a very regulated transaction,” he said.

Money-making deals

Moore, founder of Estate Administration Services, and his probate successor, real estate agent Cynthia “Cyndi” Sauerland of Compass Realty & Management, administered hundreds of probate cases combined in District Court in the past several years.

They often started the cases without family involvement and obtained authority to sell homes through a process that doesn’t require court approval of the deal or competitive bidding. They also frequently sold to a small circle of repeat buyers who flipped the properties, the Review-Journal found.

Moore, Sauerland and their associate Adam Fenn of Compass Realty contend they are finding buyers for abandoned houses that can be taken over by squatters, fall into disrepair and become a neighborhood nuisance.

Moore, for one, told the Review-Journal that he sold “some of the most dilapidated, condemned, and fire-damaged houses you have ever seen.”

People who worked on his cases also made plenty of money.

Clear Counsel Law Group, which represented Moore in almost all of his cases tracked for this story, earned at least $1.16 million working with him, the Review-Journal found.

The firm declined to comment.

Compass booked almost $890,000 in commissions across nearly 120 of Moore’s cases, though it also paid for more than $135,000 worth of legal fees and other bills.

Fenn’s former brokerage, Haines & Krieger Realty, earned more than $600,000 in commissions across nearly 100 of Moore’s cases.

Also, “EAS” — which Fenn confirmed was Moore’s company — collected more than $310,000 in administrator fees through dozens of cases. Most of that money came from the buyer’s side in the transactions, court records show.

Fenn pointed to the costs and work involved with running probate cases and said the business isn’t as profitable as people might think.

It’s not like “everyone is swimming in money,” he said. “It’s not even close.”

‘Abatement’ fees

After Louise Williams died at age 87 following a stroke, Moore sold her southwest Las Vegas house for $150,000 to frequent probate buyer-and-flipper Avi Segal.

The short sale left no money for Williams’ adult son, but real estate commissions totaled $9,000, the law firm that worked the case with Moore made $5,000 and EAS’ administrator fee topped $9,400, with the latter two fees paid by the buyer, court records show.

Two fees paid by the buyer had vague descriptions.

An entity named “RTS” earned more than $7,000 for “foreclosure monitoring,” and “LV Abatement Services” booked more than $16,000 for “abatement services,” court records show.

Fenn confirmed that RTS is his entity Rapid Trustee Sale Inc. and that, as county records show, he also owns LV Abatement Services.

Overall, Moore’s cases paid out more than $900,000 to private entities — including Fenn’s — for costs listed in court records as foreclosure monitoring, abatement services, abatement fees or just “abatement.” Those funds were mostly paid by the buyers in the transactions.

The biggest recipient in that group — usually listed as just LVHS — took home around $700,000 in abatement-related charges, court records indicate.

Fenn confirmed this entity is controlled by frequent probate buyer-and-flipper Gary M. Wilson, whose businesses have included LV Home Source LLC, state records show.

Wilson could not be reached for comment.

‘They must know something I don’t’

Southern Nevada probate attorneys Elyse Tyrell, Bob Morris and Kennedy “Kenny” Lee — who work for separate firms — said they had never heard of foreclosure-monitoring or abatement-services fees.

Realty One Group branch manager Tim Kelly Kiernan, who said he handled more than 100 short sales a decade or so ago after the mid-2000s housing bubble burst, also hadn’t heard of those fees.

Neither had Tom Blanchard, managing broker with Signature Real Estate Group, who said he’s handled nearly 1,000 short sales in his decades-long career.

Finding cases

Adam Fenn of Compass Realty & Management declined to say how his team finds homes left by the dead that can be used for probate cases in District Court.

During an interview, he said multiple times that his team had trade secrets.

In theory, they could scan obituaries and then see if the deceased owned a home. They could also track publicly available filings with Clark County that might stem from a homeowner’s missed payments — including liens and default notices — and then try to find out if the owner was still alive.

Locally, death certificates are confidential and only released to qualified applicants, said Southern Nevada Health District spokeswoman Jennifer Sizemore.

This includes people who filed a petition in probate court, as it meets the district’s requirement to facilitate a legal process, she said.

When an applicant has no apparent relationship to the deceased or the dead person’s family, the health district requires proof that a petition was filed before it releases the records, she added.

— Eli Segall

Fenn said foreclosure-monitoring work includes postponing foreclosure sales, and he estimated his team defers more than 100 such auctions per year.

He also said that his LV Abatement entity charges fees for short-sale negotiation and management and that his team handles cases at no cost to heirs.

“I know it might look high, but it’s really not that high to go through a year-long legal process and do what most people can’t, which is short-sale negotiations for these types of houses,” he said.

Lee noted he’s not an expert on all of the closing costs. But he also said his law firm isn’t interested in taking a case if it appears the sole asset is a house that would be subject to a short sale.

There’s no guarantee a lender will even approve the deal. Plus, there’s already a way to deal with financially distressed properties, Lee said: The bank can foreclose on the house.

Morris also said he’s not interested in cases with short sales, and that he’d rather let the bank foreclose.

“They must know something I don’t,” said Morris, who has nearly two decades of probate experience in Southern Nevada.

No bids required

Lenders try to sell the homes they foreclose on. According to Fenn, however, attorneys who advise clients to walk away from such properties are “unknowingly” contributing to the problem of abandoned houses.

He said his team can get attorney’s fees paid through short sales so the lawyers can work the case and “hopefully discover something beneficial to the estate.”

Underwater homeowners who are still alive wouldn’t get a dime from a short sale, either. Their lender is taking a loss on the deal, and the seller’s “payment” is being able to walk away from the house without having to make up the bank’s shortfall.

Tyrell, however, said the high volume of underwater homes and short sales tracked by the Review-Journal raised concerns for her, noting that an administrator could still get paid even if the family doesn’t.

“I’m always concerned when there’s nothing for (the) family and nothing for heirs,” she said.

According to Fenn, heirs understand the house is underwater, and they usually just don’t want to owe anything to anyone.

While Moore routinely sold homes for less than what was owed on the mortgage, he also wasn’t required in the vast majority of his cases to take bids that might boost the sales price.

He obtained court authority for “independent administration” in at least 340 cases, or nearly every time he requested it, the Review-Journal found.

Sauerland told the Review-Journal that 65 percent of her sales had equity for the estate. She obtained independent administration authority at least 125 times among 150-plus requests, court records show.

This provision of state law lets an administrator sell real estate without a judge’s approval or competitive bidding through court, attorneys said.

It’s a useful tool when heirs agree on what to do with a home, as they can sell it faster through court, attorneys said.

Moore said his legal counsel recommended using this provision of the law because of the issues with abandoned real estate, adding it was best to move quickly because of the mounting debt and rundown conditions.

Sauerland said that squatters can get inside these homes and the sooner the properties are dealt with the better.

“It’s a quicker process, but that’s not to mean that we’re trying to race to the end and just make a bunch of money and run away,” she said.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT PROBATE FEES

‘No accountability’: Nevada law allows probate house sales with less oversight

Nevada attorneys made big promises when they pushed for a change to probate law more than a decade ago.

The proposed new way to sell dead people’s homes and settle their finances would speed up cases, reduce burdens on the court and slash costs, they said.

All told, case administrators could act more independently, as court supervision was in many cases “neither helpful nor necessary,” proponents told lawmakers.

Since then, two prolific administrators used the legal provision hundreds of times combined in Southern Nevada. They also routinely started those cases without family participation, often generated no sales proceeds for heirs and frequently sold homes to a small circle of buyers who flipped the properties, a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation found.

Probate cases involve transferring ownership of a dead person’s property through court and settling debts. Under the “independent administration” option Nevada lawmakers adopted in 2011, a house can be sold without a judge’s approval or competitive bidding through court, probate attorneys said.

It’s a useful tool when family members agree on what to do with property a dead relative left behind, according to attorneys. Heirs can sell the home faster through court and move on with their lives.

But by design, this route through probate court provides less oversight of the sale and no court-supervised bidding process that might push up the price.

“There’s no accountability,” said Donnalyn VanOrman-Wasano, a private fiduciary in Henderson who works with trusts and estates.

State Sen. Melanie Scheible, D-Las Vegas, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last two regular legislative sessions, said Monday she found it troubling that people were profiting from the deaths of individuals whose families did not take over the estates.

It’s too early to say whether any laws need to be changed, said Scheible, who believed the issue “definitely deserves” some attention from Nevada legislators.

“It kind of sounds like there’s a loophole here,” she told the Review-Journal.

Assemblywoman Brittney Miller, D-Las Vegas, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee in last year’s session, did not respond to requests for comment.

Private fiduciary Donnalyn VanOrman-Wasano, left, and probate attorney Elyse Tyrell at their of ...
Private fiduciary Donnalyn VanOrman-Wasano, left, and probate attorney Elyse Tyrell at their office in Henderson. VanOrman-Wasano handles trusts and estates and says there is “no accountability,” noting that it can take a while to get a court hearing on a sale and that sometimes she worries the homes can fall prey to squatters or vandals or end up in foreclosure. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

Frequent court approval

Court officials were aware of “concerns and trends” in probate cases and, in response, imposed greater scrutiny on third-party administrators early last year, District Court spokeswoman Mary Ann Price said.

There have since been fewer requests for independent administration, she said.

Two of Southern Nevada’s most prolific private administrators of the past decade, Thomas G. Moore and his probate successor Cynthia “Cyndi” Sauerland, were involved with at least 500 probate cases combined in District Court over the last several years.

They also sought independent administration virtually every time, and the court routinely granted it.

Many of their cases started without family on board. In roughly 80 percent of his initial petitions to oversee cases, Moore did not identify any known heirs or he named them but stated he could not communicate with them, the Review-Journal found. For Sauerland, that figure was around 73 percent.

Moore, founder of Estate Administration Services, obtained court authority for independent administration in at least 340 cases among 345 requests tracked by the Review-Journal.

Sauerland, an agent with Compass Realty & Management, secured this authority at least 125 times among 153 requests, court records show.

Ultimately, the duo sold at least around 360 homes through probate court, and their three biggest buyers alone flipped more than 130 homes for $13.4 million above the combined purchase price, the Review-Journal found.

Las Vegas probate lawyer Kennedy “Kenny” Lee said independent administration, in general, offers more control over who buys the home. The family might want to sell to a friend, for instance, even if that person can’t pay top dollar, he said.

But selling with court confirmation allows for a bidding process, and depending on market conditions, buyers might push up the price, he said.

‘It’s a quicker process’

Under Nevada law, almost anyone can manage a probate case. Family members have top priority, but last on the 10-deep list in state law is anyone “legally qualified” for the task.

It’s a low bar, as any adult in Nevada can run a probate case if the person is not a felon. Would-be administrators also could be blocked over a conflict of interest, “drunkenness” and “lack of integrity,” state law says.

Moore, Sauerland and their associate Adam Fenn of Compass Realty contend they are finding buyers for abandoned houses that can be taken over by squatters, fall into disrepair and become a neighborhood nuisance.

VanOrman-Wasano also noted that it can take a while to get a court hearing on a sale and that sometimes she worries the homes can fall prey to squatters or vandals or end up in foreclosure.

District Judge Jessica Peterson talks to Bradley Schrager, Clark County Education Association l ...
District Judge Jessica Peterson talks to Bradley Schrager, Clark County Education Association lawyer, at the Regional Justice Center. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Moore, who is 41 and now lives in Washington state, said his legal counsel recommended using independent administration because of the issues with abandoned real estate.

“Moving quickly was in the best interest of the situation due to debt accruing daily and the condition of each property deteriorating daily,” he told the Review-Journal in an email.

More often than not, heirs received nothing from his probate sales.

Moore sold 230-plus homes through probate court. On at least 164 occasions, he reported having nothing to distribute to heirs because he sold the home in a short sale, court records indicate.

In such transactions, lenders approve a sale for less than what’s owed on the seller’s mortgage, typically because the property value fell.

Sauerland also pointed to problems the homes can face after the owners die and said the sooner the properties are dealt with the better.

“It’s a quicker process, but that’s not to mean that we’re trying to race to the end and just make a bunch of money and run away,” she said.

According to Sauerland, 65 percent of her sales had equity for the estate.

Overall, the court’s probate workload is plenty high: As of 2022, three judges presided over 10,000-plus probate cases in District Court.

Probate judges, including Gloria Sturman, who took the bench in 2011, and Jessica Peterson, who took the bench in 2021, and Probate Commissioner James Fontano did not respond to requests for comment.

Fontano was appointed to the job in fall 2022. As Price described it, he implemented the new requirements after consulting with judges.

Former Probate Commissioner Wesley Yamashita, who held the job from 2008 to 2021, declined to comment.

‘Some formalities can be relaxed’

In 2011, Senate Bill 221 made various changes related to trusts and estates. Among other things, it contained the Independent Administration of Estates Act, which allowed a personal representative to administer “most aspects” of a dead person’s estate “without court supervision.”

After the bill was introduced, the State Bar of Nevada said the independent provision was designed to expedite probate cases, reduce burdens on the court and lower administrative costs by allowing a personal representative “to act more independently from the court in non-contested matters.”

“In many estates, court supervision is neither helpful nor necessary, and some formalities can be relaxed without any detriment to the interested parties,” according to a summary the legal group provided.

There may have been some attorneys who voiced concern about independent administration at the time, but the State Bar’s probate and trust section felt the “benefits outweighed the burdens” of “what could go wrong,” said Reno attorney Julia Gold, one of the lawyers who pushed for the change.

Gold said she has heard that Las Vegas gets some “disturbing” probate cases. But overall, independent administration fulfills its intention of lowering expenses and getting more money to beneficiaries, she contends.

“If it’s used properly, it serves its purpose, and it serves it well,” she said.

COMPASS REALTY INVOLVED IN HUNDREDS OF PROBATE CASES

The Review-Journal’s investigation of homes sold through probate court found many cases had ties to the same Las Vegas real estate firm: Compass Realty & Management.

Compass earned commissions in more than 100 probate cases managed by Estate Administration Services founder Thomas G. Moore, who said in court papers that he “passed the torch” for his probate work in 2020 to his former colleague Cynthia “Cyndi” Sauerland.

Sauerland, an agent with Compass, has sold more than 100 homes through probate court, including at least two dozen to her associate Adam Fenn of Compass, who flipped most of them, and one to Compass owner Takumba Britt, the Review-Journal found.

A property that Compass Realty acquired in probate court after the owners died in Las Vegas, Tu ...
A house for sale on Torrey Pines Drive in southwest Las Vegas, listed by Compass Realty & Management, is seen Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. Compass agent Cynthia Sauerland received court approval to administer the estate of the home's former owner, who died in 2023. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

Sauerland said that Compass handles the listings when she sells homes through probate.

“It’s every time,” she told the Review-Journal. “This company knows what they’re doing with these properties.”

In one 2022 case, District Judge Jessica Peterson said in court that she had a “big problem” if Sauerland worked for the real estate firm that handled the sale, adding it was a conflict of interest with Sauerland’s position.

Britt told the Review-Journal that he doesn’t believe there are any conflicts of interest with his company’s probate work.

When someone has a niche and puts a house on the market, he said, it is “still getting sold and still getting the most for the heirs.”

Fenn added: “It’s still good business, that’s what we’re doing here. We’re providing value.”

Police calls and code enforcement

In Britt’s case, he bought a one-story house in Henderson that belonged to Louis Armendariz, who died at age 90 in fall 2020, records show.

Sauerland obtained court authority to oversee Armendariz’s probate case in early 2022 and then sold the dead man’s house through the case to Britt that summer for $400,000, property records show.

He still owns it and said he’s renovating it.

Moore, Sauerland and Fenn said the homes they deal with in probate are often dilapidated and prone to squatters moving in. City records show Armendariz’s house was a magnet for problems after he died and before Britt purchased it.

Police received calls for disturbances, domestic battery and other reported issues at that address in 2021 and a narcotics call in early 2022, Henderson call logs show.

Henderson’s code enforcement division also issued a violation notice in the spring of 2022 that cited substandard living conditions, litter and debris.

Adam Fenn, director of asset management for Compass Realty, speaks to Patrick King at a propert ...
Adam Fenn of Compass Realty & Management, left, listens to Patrick King at a house in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. Compass agent Cynthia Sauerland received court approval to administer the estate of the home's former owner, who died in 2023. King lives next door and said Compass' involvement helped, as he had dealt with squatters and tried to clean up the backyard.(Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

Adam Fenn, director of asset management for Compass Realty, listens to Patrick King at a proper ...
Adam Fenn of Compass Realty & Management, right, listens to Patrick King at a house in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. Compass agent Cynthia Sauerland received court approval to administer the estate of the home's former owner, who died in 2023. King lives next door and said Compass' involvement helped, as he had dealt with squatters and tried to clean up the backyard. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

During a visit there, officers observed soiled carpeting, shopping carts, deteriorating furniture and an extension cord that came out of a window and led to a neighbor’s backyard.

Code enforcement officers visited again two days later, joined by police, and met two occupants of the home. After the officials were allowed in for an inspection — the house was a mess and had at least one fire hazard — they deemed it unsafe to occupy.

The occupants gathered a few personal belongings and left.

Robert Telles makes claims

Former Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles, who often tried to block Moore and Sauerland’s efforts to land cases, has been jailed for more than a year on allegations that he murdered Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German.

Telles alleged at a court hearing in his murder case this month, without offering any evidence, that he believes Compass “framed” him for the slaying.

Until he was arrested, he was “pursuing exposure of Compass Realty’s thievery in probate cases,” he said in court.

Compass was opening cases to sell the homes of dead people to its partners at low prices with no public auction so the buyers could later resell the homes for as much as double, Telles said at the hearing.

“The money that should have been going to families was going into the pockets of these guys,” Telles claimed.

Compass was not a party to the hearing, and no one representing the company was in court at the time to respond.

Telles has also claimed that what prosecutors called “overwhelming evidence” against him was planted at his home.

Britt said in a statement to the Review-Journal after the court hearing this month that Telles is a “desperate man who has been charged with violently murdering a beloved local journalist,” and that it appears he will “do and say anything to escape answering for this charge.”

Britt also said Telles “harassed” Compass and its agents while in office and fought with the company in court over the administration of probate cases.

It is “unconscionable and irresponsible” for Telles to accuse Compass of anything, said Britt, who added that the company was “evaluating its legal options.”

Contact Eli Segall at esegall@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0342. Segall is a reporter on the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders, businesses and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Michael Scott Davidson was the Review-Journal’s data/watchdog editor. Review-Journal staff writer Brett Clarkson contributed to this report.

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