I was not familiar with “The Daily Yonder” until a Google search for real estate news revealed an interesting article about heirs’ property. The tag line for The Daily Yonder is “Keep it Rural”. The articled, with a South Carolina connection, can be read in its entirety here.
Entitled “Land rich, cash poor—How black Americans lost some of the most desirable land in the U.S.”, the article was written by Sarah Melotte and was dated July 11. It caught my attention because it quoted a South Carolinian, Ercelle Chillis, who said her family’s seven-acre tract off Folly Road in Charleston means so much because it was purchased in 1926 by her father, who saved “pennies and nickels and dimes” to buy it. Chillis’ father died without a will, and his children did not probate his estate. Family members now own the land as heirs’ property.
The article focuses on the precarious nature of owning real estate as heirs’ property. The numbers of owners multiply as the years pass, making it more and more difficult to obtain clear title. Developers may target heirs, purchasing fractional interests to ultimately force a sale by all owners. These sales are often at below-market prices. In the case of natural disasters, relief from FEMA and other entities may be unavailable for properties with title issues.
Historically, many of these properties were in swampy and mosquito infested areas with low property values. The “Gullah Geechee Corridor”, a strip of land once predominantly inhabited by enslaved people, runs along the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. We all know that the values of coastal properties have sky-rocketed in recent years.
The article points to several reasons black Americans have lost properties: violence, discrimination, intimidation, and immigration to the North. But legal scholars also blame vulnerable forms of land ownership, such as heirs’ property.
The author points to organizations such as The Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Network, that are attempting to fix this problem. Legal reforms are also being implemented. Notably, in 2016, South Carolina state senator and Emanuel AME shooting victim Clementa Pinckney helped pass The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act which allows an heir to purchase other heirs’ interest to avoid forced sales to developers. Other important aspects of this legislation are the requirement of an appraisal and a directive that heirs receive a fair share of the profit.
Read this article for an interesting take on a real estate issue that many South Carolina practitioners confront on a fairly regular basis.