What is Heir Property?


After the Civil War, many African Americans were deeded land by others or purchased land for themselves. Because of laws against teaching slaves to read or write, and later Jim Crow laws restricting access to legal assistance, many landowners did not leave written wills. A tradition of verbal bequeaths remains common today in the African American community. However, verbal bequests are not generally recognized by state law, resulting in what is called heir property – land held in common by the descendants (or heirs) of someone who has died without a probated will.

While many co-owners enjoy the flexibility heir property offers and the sense of community it fosters, the title to such property is usually considered clouded (see bold-faced words in the glossary). Problems associated with holding land as heir property, such as forced tax and partition sales, often lead to land loss. Heir property is cited as one of the leading causes of land loss among African Americans. There are many misconceptions surrounding heir property and confusion often occurs about who owns what. It is important that heirs are aware of risks involved in heir property, know their rights as a landowners, and take the proper steps to protect their land. Every single heir has a right to enjoy the benefits of landownership, but they also have the responsibility to ensure the land is cared for.

Disadvantages of heir property include:

  • Vulnerability to partition sales.
  • Vulnerability to tax sales.
  • Cannot secure a mortgage on the land.
  • May not be eligible for federal funding for housing or repairs.
  • May not be eligible for other programs that require clear title, like weatherization programs.
  • Difficulty getting the property annexed into a city.
  • Most timber companies will not purchase timber from land without a clear title.
  • Any improvements made to the land (agricultural improvements or building structures) become property of all heirs entitled to the land.
  • Difficulty leasing the land out for agricultural or recreational purposes.
  • Vulnerability to adverse possession.
  • With each passing generation that dies without a will, the number of heirs increases while the size of each person's interest decreases.
  • If land is sold, many family members cannot afford to "buy out" other co-owners or out-bid developers or real estate speculators.

Heir property is the source of many legal and bureaucratic problems, yet remains an important resource for many families. It is important that families are aware of the dangers of keeping land in this pattern of ownership and what measures they can take to protect themselves. If policymakers, housing services, community planners, and economic development coordinators all became more aware of heir property and the issues involved, they can better serve their constituents by ensuring a more equitable distribution of assets.

For more detailed information, click on the links below:

Laws of Intestacy
Partition Sales
Tax Sales
Frequently Asked Questions
Steps to Protect Your Land
Ownership Options with Clear Title

Click here for a list of references

Last Updated Jun. 22, 2011

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