In the US, a campaign to transform heirs’ property laws is hoping to preserve the inheritance of black communities by taking control of fractured land titles.

The legal category heirs’ property’ is a form of default collective ownership where the heirs to land are only given a fractional interest in a plot—equivalent to receiving a share of a company’s stock. As a result, the property generally gets divided into smaller and smaller pieces down the generations.

As beneficiaries do not have a clear title, the land cannot be used as collateral to get loans and are usually ineligible for federal disaster relief. And the land can be sold without the full family consent because property laws in most states allow a single co-owner to trigger a court procedure to sell part of the land. This can result in judges putting up the entire property for sale at below market value.

Share of the family inheritance

An article on The Nation website quoted the example of Sandra Thompson, who had anticipated receiving a share of her family’s inheritance when her grandmother died. Thompson expected to become a co-owner of a 4.3 acre piece of land in Leon County, Florida, along with her aunts and father. Other family members had built five properties on the land.

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However, following her grandmother’s death, Thompson learned that because her will had not been drafted according to the state laws, the land was classified as heirs’ property. Her family were committed to keeping the property but the legal process to clearing their title to the land cost about $10,000—more than its original purchase price.

According to The New Yorker, a third of all black-owned land in the south is heirs’ property. It makes up 3.5 million acres and is worth about $28 billion.

Template for state property law reform

Now, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA) offers a template for reforming state-level property law, which would dramatically change the inheritance rules in marginalised communities. It establishes due process methods to prevent abrupt partition sales and courts must notify everyone when one co-owner wants to sell part of the land, and give the others the opportunity to buy that person out first.

If the family does not buy the share, the court can then decide to divide the land or initiate a sale of the entire property. In such a case, it encourages an “open market sale” which would use regular real estate procedure to yield more equitable prices.

So far, the UPHPA has been adopted by 13 states, including several Republican-dominated southern states. Although it doesn’t prevent the property from being sold voluntarily, it should help stop the “haemorrhaging” of black-owned farmland. The Nation points out that black-owned farmland has dropped by an estimated 16 million acres nationwide in 1910 to 3 million acres in 2012. And only about 1.5 percent of farmers are black, compared to 14 percent in 1910. Communities have seen ancestral lands disappear thanks to the attrition of heirs’ property.

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