MSU Extension resources aid heirs’ property issues

Published 4:59 pm Monday, October 25, 2021

By Bonnie Coblentz
MSU Extension Service

STARKVILLE, Miss. — A status known as “heirs’ property” legally ties up thousands of acres of land across Mississippi, making it almost impossible for owners to capitalize on the value of their assets.

Heirs’ property is land that has been passed down from one generation to the next without specific ownership, increasing the number of property owners. Some owners know they have a portion of the property, while others may not even know they are legal owners.

In the South, about a third of the land owned by African Americans — approximately 3.5 million acres — is held as heirs’ property. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, since 1910, the heirs’ property system has been responsible for African American landowners losing 80% of the farming land owned by previous generations. Heirs’ property is the leading cause of involuntary land loss among African Americans.

The Mississippi State University Extension Service is one of several organizations confronting this problem. Legal organizations have formed to address heirs’ property and other justice issues, and the federal government has recently set aside grant funds to help sort out some of these land ownership issues.

Mary Nelson Robertson, a project manager with the MSU Extension Service, said many people are not aware of the repercussions of not having an estate plan or will in place for landowners.

“Extension has a long history of assisting agricultural producers, landowners and families across the state, so it is important for Extension to start having more conversations around heirs’ property,” Robertson said.

Estate planning, while it can be difficult to talk about and do, is critical to ensure belongings — particularly land — are transferred as owners desire.

“Sharing your plans with family can help prevent land deterioration or loss and family disagreements. It is never too early to make an estate plan and start talking about that plan with family,” Robertson said.

Vangela Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice headquartered in Jackson, said that when families don’t leave a will that transfers property ownership, state law handles dispersion.

“All the heirs own an undivided interest in the property. This creates what is called a lack of clear title or a cloud over the title to that property,” Wade said. “You may know who the heirs are, but the law doesn’t know who they are or if there are unknown heirs.

“Mississippi law determines who inherits if you do not have a will, and the law prioritizes relationships,” she said. “When you inherit land without a will, you inherit in common with all the heirs. Not all the landowners may agree on what they want to do with it, and lack of clear title may diminish property value for sale or lease.”

Veronica McLendon, an attorney in Macon, Georgia, with expertise in heirs’ property matters, spoke at an MSU-Extension sponsored webinar on this issue in August. She said the number of owners can grow exponentially as the land passes from one generation to the next.

“This results from the failure to document the transfer of the legal title when the owner passes away,” McLendon said. “Often, we see nobody living is listed on the property, and the existing co-owners have equal rights to use the property.”

McClendon said her goal is to see land managed for profitable use. That process includes having a clear title, creating a sustainable ownership structure and finding ways to keep the property maintaining itself.

“Certain actions require cooperation of all co-owners: selling, harvesting timber, borrowing against the land,” McClendon said. “Heirs’ property also can become subject to the debts of co-owners.”

When a family finds their property is tied up as heirs’ property, there are several steps needed to clear the title so that the names on the title match living people. By sale or gift, owners should consolidate the title in one or a few names, including a trust. Owners need to put the property to profitable use so it is an asset, not a liability. And they must establish a legal plan for how the property will transfer in the future.

“None of us have all the information we need, so hire a consultant to help you meet your goals,” McClendon said.

Becky Smith, director of the MSU Extension Center for Economic Education and Financial Literacy, is part of a team developing a curriculum to help people work through the steps necessary to clear up heirs’ property ownership issues. The effort has the support of MSU Extension, the Southern Rural Development Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“We are creating a curriculum for Extension professionals and community educators so that more people understand the problem and can give accurate information to help landowners get prepared to make the process of clearing title easier and cheaper,” Smith said.

She said the curriculum will be created and delivered so that landowners in all 17 states in the SRDC’s region can use it.

“This is a difficult process because states and localities have different rules and processes for clearing titles,” Smith said. “We will pilot webinars and written materials in Mississippi and then make needed revisions and do regional train-the-trainer workshops. Materials will ultimately be available on a website and within a course learning management system.”

To contact the Mississippi Center for Justice with specific heirs’ property issues, call 800-452-HEIR, or email HP@mscenterforjustice.org.