Are you the sole owner of your land or do you share ownership with other family members? Do you have a registered deed showing ownership of the land? Do you have a receipt for taxes paid on your land? Do you have a will and estate plan? These are just a few of the questions Extension agents may be asking their clients in the coming months as the Alabama Cooperative Extension System partners with several other agencies to help Alabamians become aware of the disadvantages of being an heir property owner.
In Alabama, Extension agents are in touch with citizens from all walks of life in urban and rural settings. That makes them a wonderful resource to identify and educate heir property owners and guide them to resources that can help the heirs get clear title to their land.
More than 40 Extension professionals from around the state recently received training at a workshop in Montgomery on heir property issues. The workshop was sponsored by the Alabama Agricultural Initiative on Natural and Human Resources Program.
Heir property — land held in common by the descendants or heirs of someone who has died without a probated will — is a common form of landownership among blacks and other minorities in the rural South.
It is also one of the leading causes of land loss among these groups because of misconceptions or confusion about who owns what. The vulnerability of heir property owners compounds with each passing generation that dies without a will because the number of heirs increases and the size of each heir’s share decreases.
“It is vital for people to understand the risks involved in heir property. They must know their rights as landowners and take the proper steps to protect their land,” said Pat Kennealy, an Extension program associate in family and consumer sciences, who helped coordinate the workshop along with Janice Dyer of the Auburn University Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology.
As urban expansion consumes more and more rural property, developers and real estate speculators are constantly looking for ways to purchase new property for their shopping center and housing development projects and cities are seeking to annex property as they grow. This makes heir property owners extremely vulnerable to losing land that may have been in their family for generations.
“Even if one heir is living on the land and paying taxes on it, it doesn’t give that heir clear title to it,” said John Pollock, an attorney with the Central Alabama Fair Housing Center. “Every heir has equal rights to the property and any heir can decide to sell the land through a partition sale without the permission from other heirs “
“The risk of a partition sale is probably the biggest disadvantage to owners of heir property,” Pollock said. “One or more heirs or co-owners can sue heirs, forcing the sale of the land to the highest bidder. If the heir living on the land is unable to out bid other heirs or in many cases a developer or real estate speculator, the land is sold, often at a fraction of its true value. The heir living on the property not only loses the land but also their home located on the land. Any proceeds from the forced sale are distributed among the heirs according to their fractional interests but only after court fees, costs of conducting the sale and attorney fees are deducted.
Another disadvantage to heir property owners is ineligibility for any federal or state funding for housing repairs and weatherization programs.
According to Craig Baab, a Katrina Advocacy Fellow with the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Inc., there are still 1,200 families in Mobile County who have not been able to get federal financial assistance to repair or rebuild homes after devastation from Hurricane Katrina because they cannot prove clear title to the land they were living on.
“About 39 percent of the 1,200 families who applied for rebuilding grants had annual incomes of $15,000 or less and more than 25 percent were headed by an elderly person caring for minor children or a person with a serious disability,” Craig added. Several agencies are working together to help these families get clear titles so they can receive the financial help they do desperately need.
Extension has two heir property publications “Heir Property in Alabama” (HE-852) and “Heir Property: Legal and Cultural Dimensions of Collective Landowership” Bulletin (667).
For more information on heir property, visit http://wms.aces.edu/accordent/ or contact the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund at (205) 652-9676. You can also call the Fair Housing Center at (334) 263-4663 or Craig Baab at (334) 263-0086.