Forest Service Publishes Heirs' Property and Land Fractionation Proceedings
For immediate release: October 8, 2019
A recent publication from the U.S. Forest Service highlights heirs' property ownership across the southern United States. Heirs' property is real property that is typically inherited without a will by two or more related people. This kind of ownership is especially prevalent among lower-wealth African Americans in the Black Belt South, central Appalachian whites, and Hispanic Americans in U.S. southwest colonia communities.
The publication consists of the proceedings of a July 2017 meeting cohosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (Atlanta Fed) and the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS). It was published as part of the SRS General Technical Report series.
Heirs' property is believed to be a significant factor behind both the wealth gap between African Americans and whites and persistent Appalachian poverty. Without a deed, the heirs cannot sell or develop the land, they cannot participate in state or federally funded programs, and they are even at risk of losing the property altogether.
It is conservatively estimated that there are more than 1.6 million acres of heirs' property in counties of Black Belt, valued at more than $6.6 billion. For the larger southern region—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—estimates are 3.5 million acres with an assessed value of $28 billion.
Fractionated ownership is similar—it refers to real property inherited without a will—but is limited to allotments on tribal lands. It occurs throughout the United States.
Coediting the proceedings were U.S. Forest Service social scientist Cassandra Johnson Gaither, Atlanta Fed director of community and economic development policy and analytics Ann Carpenter, Black Belt Justice executive director Tracy Lloyd McCurty, and Center for Community Progress senior fellow Sara Toering.
"Finding solutions to the heirs' property problem is critical, as it is preventing many families in the Southeast and elsewhere from building enduring wealth and seeking opportunities that can help them advance," said Raphael Bostic, Atlanta Fed president and chief executive officer. Bostic gave the conference welcome remarks.
For the first time, the meeting—and now the proceedings—brought together organizations and researchers addressing heirs' property across the South. Significantly, the meeting and proceedings clarify the problem for these groups and offer lessons learned by grassroots legal service organizations working directly with families to get clear title to their property.
"For generations, the lack of clear title has limited heirs' property owners' ability to participate in state and federally funded programs," explained Rob Doudrick, SRS station director. "Helping these landowners resolve their property issues will not only help them gain access to programs, but can encourage the adoption of sustainable forest management practices that will conserve their forest land and generate revenue."
The report highlights significant milestones made since the 2017 convening such as the adoption of the Uniform Partition of Heirs' Property Act by additional states and stipulations in the 2018 Farm Bill intended to aid farm and ranch heirs' property owners in accessing assistance from the federal government.
"Fractionation interests prevent the property owners from reaping the full benefits of land ownership by limiting their ability to use the property as a productive resource, for collateral, or as an investment," stated Carpenter. "It is a barrier that impedes efficient land use as well as opportunities to build wealth. This impacts a significant number of families and communities in the Atlanta Fed's district."
The proceedings include chapters that focus on data sources, in-depth investigations of heirs' property owners, research on cultural aspects of heirs' property ownership, estimations of the extent of heirs' property in the South, and both actual and proposed ideas for legal reform to make heirs' property ownership more viable and valuable.
"It is overwhelmingly clear that heirs' property erodes generational wealth and hinders community economic development," said Skipper StipeMaas, contributing author and Georgia Heirs Property Law Center executive director. "Fortunately, legal tools can help families, nonprofits, and municipalities unlock this frozen equity. Heirs' property is everywhere; it probably affects your family even if you don't know it; and, with legal resources, there is something you can do about it."