Heirs’ Property in the South

rural Alabama
African Americans in rural areas have lost their land at rates much higher than other groups.

Children often inherit their parents’ homes and land. But what happens when there is no will or title? For many people, this is not an abstract question.

“Heirs’ property is inherited land that two or more people own,” says U.S. Forest Service scientist Cassandra Johnson Gaither. “The property is typically passed to heirs without a will or with a clouded title.”

Without a clear title, landowners are unable to get grants and loans. Every heir must accept legal responsibility for a loan – and in some instances, heirs may not even know each other.

Johnson Gaither recently co-authored an SRS General Technical Report that examines heirs’ property.

“We suspect that heirs’ property is much more common in minority communities,” says Johnson Gaither. “Without a clear title, banks will not allow owners to collateralize their property, so it cannot be used to build wealth.” Heirs’ property could contribute to wealth differentials between African Americans and whites.

When an heir no longer wishes to hold the property in common, it is sometimes divided among heirs. However, there are often so many heirs that subdivision is not practical. In such cases, the entire property may be sold as a means of dividing the property. “The threat of displacement via court-ordered sales is magnified when land is in high demand,” says Johnson Gaither.

Johnson Gaither reviewed literature on heirs’ property in African-American communities. Heirs’ property ownership among rural African-Americans. Over the past century, black rural land holdings have declined precipitously, far exceeding the rate of land loss for other groups.

Johnson Gaither also examined heirs’ property in Native American communities and in Kentucky. Heirs’ property is also common in the colonias of southwest Texas.

“Heirs’ property is often associated with economic stagnation and generational poverty,” says Johnson Gaither. In each region, distinct historical factors contribute to heirs’ property prevalence.

Native American
Mandated allotments ended in 1934, along with a loss of nearly 90 million acres of Native American land. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the literature suggests that distrust of the legal system, coupled with a communal culture, contributed to heirs’ property among African Americans in the south.

In Native American communities, heirs’ property was often an unintended result of the federally mandated land allotment system. The federal government instituted the land allotment system in the early part of the twentieth century.

In Kentucky, economic stagnation and high rates of corporate landownership may have contributed.

The economic constraints associated with heirs’ property are clear.

“However, common ownership may be crucial to preserving aspects of rural culture that could dissipate with individual ownership,” says Johnson Gaither. “This form of land ownership – especially in rural African American communities – illustrates resilience and strength in the face of structural privations.”

Read the full text of the report.

For more information, email Cassandra Johnson Gaither at cjohnson09@fs.fed.us.

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