Heirs' Property in the South: Fostering Stable Ownership to Prevent Land Loss - June 15, 2017

Heirs' property is formed when a landowner dies without a will or with a simple will that divides real estate assets equally among the descendants. There are a number of problems associated with heirs' property, including the lack of clear title (which limits owners' ability to leverage property), the vulnerability to intrafamily disputes, and the potential for the loss of familial wealth and heritage. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and the U.S. Forest Service's Southern Research Station recently hosted a gathering on heirs' property research and outreach in the southern United States.

Research suggests that a significant amount of privately owned land in the South may be classified as heirs' property. Heirs' property ownership is thought to be disproportionately high among racial and ethnic minority groups, low-income and low-wealth households, and other vulnerable populations, all of which are less likely to engage in sophisticated estate planning. For African-American families in particular, land abandonment and other forms of land loss contribute to the widening racial wealth gap by depleting existing assets and undermining their transfer across generations.

To broaden the discussion of these topics, a variety of researchers and other experts from the nonprofit, private, and public sectors were convened. Panel topics included estimations of the extent of heirs' property in the South, in-depth investigations of heirs' property owners, perspectives from direct service providers, and a discussion of how heirs' property in urban areas contributes to abandoned and blighted buildings. Collaborators also worked to identify opportunities that would improve data collection, decrease property vulnerability, and better protect generational wealth.

Several issues and critical needs emerged from the meeting, including:

  • Critical examination of the tension between decreasing property vulnerability and protecting wealth
  • The need to engage the public with estate planning
  • Assessing the longer-term impacts of title clearance on family wealth and cohesion
  • Community-wide issues associated with heirs' property proliferation
  • The need for greater data uniformity and access and expanded geographical areas of study
  • The opportunity to engage in more public-private partnerships and with pro bono lawyers and university law clinics
  • The high cost of heirs' property resolution and need for more accessible and nonjudicial interventions
  • The need to be proactive rather than reactive, as evidenced by title issues uncovered in the wake of recent natural disasters
  • The need for greater funding for research and services.

For further information on the event, please contact Ann Carpenter.