ProPublica publishes interesting heirs’ property story

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Check out the July 15, 2019 story by Lizzie Presser

NC oceanfront property

Image courtesy of ProPublica.org

Several of our staff members stay well informed about current events, and Cris Hudson, our IT professional, is no exception. Cris pointed me to this story published by ProPublica on July 15 entitled “Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery”. The subtitle is “The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave it.” Cris told me I should blog about this story, so here goes.

ProPublica calls itself a “nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power”. The story is about brothers, Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, who lived in Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina, on land they considered to be owned by dozens of their family members. The property consists of 65 marshy acres. Melvin Reels ran a club on the property and lived in an apartment above the club. He also had established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land. Licurtis had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s house.

Mr. Davis’ and Mr. Reels’ great grandfather, Mitchell Reels, bought the land just one generation removed from slavery. The land was said to contain the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. Mitchell didn’t trust the courts and didn’t leave a will, so, when he died in 1970, the property became heirs’ property.

In 2011, the brothers appeared before a judge to argue that they owned the waterfront portion of their property, which had purportedly been sold, without their knowledge or consent, to a developer. They were not allowed to argue their case that day. Instead, the judge sent them to jail for civil contempt. They were never charged with a crime nor given a jury trial, but they spent the next eight years fighting their case from jail.

As any practitioner who has handled quiet title suits for heirs’ property can attest, the suits can be expensive and complex. Nonprofit organizations, like The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, assist in litigating these matters.

The story quotes Josh Walden of the Center who said that organization has worked to clear more than 200 titles in South Carolina the past decade, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Mr. Walden told the reporter that the center has mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina and is careful to protect the maps from potential developers.

Back to the North Carolina story, a great uncle of Mitchell and Licurtis apparently obtained the waterfront property through an adverse possession action and began sending trespass notices to the brothers in 1982. The brothers could not believe the adverse possession action could have been “legal” since they had lived on the land their entire lives. Soon afterward, the great uncle sold the waterfront portion of the land to developers.

The family members knew that if the waterfront was developed, the tax values of their adjacent properties would skyrocket, and they would have difficulty paying the taxes and maintaining their properties. Tax sales have historically been the cause of the loss of many heirs’ properties.

(I got confused in one part of the story when the author talked about “nearby” Hilton Head. We drove from Hilton Head to Outer Banks once, and I promise you, the two locations are not “nearby”. We could have driven to Disney World in the same time frame.)

Like tax sales, partition actions have been a tool used to separate heirs from their properties. A developer can buy the share of one heir and then force a partition of the entire property. While South Carolina has passed partition legislation to protect against this danger, North Carolina has held out against this reform, according to the story.

The brothers continued to rot in jail after the judge indicated there was no time limit on civil conspiracy, and that the brothers had to move their houses from the properties to be released. The brothers refused and were locked in a hopeless clash with the law, according to the story.

Eight years later, the brothers appeared before a judge who agreed to release them but warned them that if they returned to their homes, they would return to jail. They have still not been able to return to the waterfront property.

I invite you to read the entire story for a history of heirs’ property in the South. It is indeed a sad tale of greed and legal wrangling to remove properties from heirs. The Reels’ story is just one example.

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Happy New Year!

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Let’s make 2019 a great year!

2019 Happy New Year small

2018 has been a difficult year for our work family here in Columbia. Almost every person in our office suffered a personal loss or a difficult illness of a family member during the year. We have supported each other to the extent a work family can provide support, and we have collectively decided to turn the corner and to make 2019 our year. We invite you to join us in that resolution.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” My guess is that he used the qualifier “most” because he recognized that outside forces might lead to unhappiness for some people, but I couldn’t agree more with our 16th president that happiness is usually a matter of choice.

Here in the Bible Belt South, some may believe that faith leads to happiness, but experience suggests that people of faith don’t always choose happiness. Experience also suggests that affluence does not create happiness. In fact, it seems that the opposite may be true in many instances.

I write this blog* for South Carolina real estate lawyers and their staff members, and my goal is to keep us all up to date on real estate issues that may affect our practices.

Abe Lincoln Happiness

Early in my career, I decided to focus on real estate law because I chose happiness. I found real estate law to be a happier choice than litigation, especially the domestic litigation I tried for about five minutes. If the economy is good, then everyone should be satisfied at the end of the closing process. The seller should walk away with funds. The buyer should have a new piece of real estate to inhabit, rent or develop. The lender should have a nice income stream. And the players in the marketplace should be paid fairly for their services in connection with the closing.

Those of us who weathered the economic downturn that began in 2007 are well aware that practicing real estate law does not lead to similar happiness when the economy is terrible. Kudos to all of us who survived and came out the other side of that particularly unhappy season. And here’s to hoping we don’t experience a similar downturn any time soon.

Another realization I made early in my career is that to make money, lawyers have to work very hard, often at a speed and pressure that do not benefit their health and happiness. And if lawyers have to work under those circumstances, then their staff members do as well.

So how do we choose happiness in a pressure-filled real estate practice that is dependent on the economy?

I offer Jon Gordon’s “20 Tips for a Positive New Year” as a suggestion. Jon Gordon is a motivational business speaker I enjoy following. Many of his tips for a positive 2019 focus on choosing to be happy. (But I particularly like his tip #8, “Get More Sleep” as I type this piece at 5:30 a.m.) You can download this excellent advice in poster format to keep at your desk or post in your workroom.

I am going to try to follow Abraham Lincoln’s and Jon Gordon’s advice in 2019. And I invite you to join me!

*Thanks to the readers of this blog! I began writing weekly very late in 2014. Readership has increased from just under 2,000 in 2014 to just over 31,000 in 2018. I’d like to take the opportunity of a new year to thank Martha McConnell and Jennifer Rubin, excellent lawyers in our office, who help me with ideas, redirect my thinking, keep me out of trouble and proofread my work. And I’d like to thank Cris Hudson, IT guru extraordinaire in our office, who handles technical issues. It is definitely a team effort, and I am blessed with a great team! My friend and fellow lawyer, Bill Booth, has also supplied me with a steady stream of ideas. Thanks Bill! If you have ideas for me, please contact me through this blog or at claire.manning@ctt.com.