Identifying Potential Heirs Properties

rural land
Property inherited without a will is known as heirs’ property. CC0 photo

Heirs’ property is inherited land that comes with a catch – a clouded title.

“Without a clear title, families are at risk of losing their land and their wealth,” says U.S. Forest Service scientist Cassandra Johnson Gaither.

Heirs’ property owners often cannot access credit, sell natural resources, or participate in state and federal land improvement programs.

“Attention on these issues is growing,” says Johnson Gaither. “However, no one knows how common heirs’ property is.” Fundamental data on the extent of heirs’ property in the South does not exist. Most estimations of heirs’ property are old or only cover small areas.

In the past, heirs’ parcels have been manually identified. “Somebody goes to the courthouse, gets the records, and eyeballs them,” says Johnson Gaither.

Johnson Gaither and her colleagues developed a new way to identify potential heirs’ properties. Johnson Gaither conceptualized the study, and Scott Pippin and Shana Jones led the technical aspects. Pippin and Jones are researchers at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

The researchers published their work as an SRS General Technical Report.

“We developed a method for identifying properties that are more likely to be heirs’ parcels,” says Johnson Gaither. The method automates and refines methods that non-profit Georgia Appleseed and researcher Janice Dyer developed.

The new method allows researchers to assess hundreds or thousands of records at once. It uses census data and computer-assisted mass appraisal data, or CAMA.

Listen to a brief audio clip by author Cassandra Johnson Gaither describing this publication. • Text Transcript

CAMA data show when the property was last sold or improved, its tax value, and other information. The data also show which properties have a financial caretaker, or a point of contact who pays taxes.

Johnson Gaither and her colleagues used the information to identify parcels that might be heirs’ properties. How accurate can such predictors be? Johnson Gaither and SRS mathematical statistician Stanley Zarnoch evaluated this question in a separate study that was published in the journal Land Use Policy.

“We found that the year of last sale and whether or not a financial caretaker is listed are the strongest predictors,” says Johnson Gaither.

For that study, the scientists focused on heirs’ properties in Leslie County, Kentucky, and Macon-Bibb County, Georgia. The method correctly predicted heirs’ parcels 67 percent of the time in Leslie County and 48 percent of the time in Macon-Bibb County.

In the GTR, Johnson Gaither and her colleagues used the new method in 10 Georgia counties.

Five of the Georgia counties were within the geographic region known as the Black Belt. Potential heirs’ properties were common in these counties.

“Nineteen percent of parcels in these counties are potential heirs’ properties,” says Pippin. Collectively, over 34,000 acres in the counties could be heirs’ property. The assessed land value is over $760 million.

The remaining Georgia counties were not part of the Black Belt. Property values in these 5 counties were higher, and an average 14 percent of parcels could be heirs’ property. Their cumulative value was almost $1.4 billion.

“Heirs’ property is often described as a rural problem,” says Jones. “However, our assessment of these counties suggests that heirs’ property is also a problem in more urbanized areas—and property value in these areas is much higher.”

In addition to the 10 Georgia counties, the scientists evaluated single counties in South Carolina and Texas. Those results show that 25 percent of parcels in Cameron County, TX could be heirs’ properties, as well as 9 percent of parcels in Anderson County, SC.

flooded home
Without a clear title, homeowners are often ineligible for federal grants and loans – even after a natural disaster. Photo by Stephen Lehmann, US Coast Guard.

CAMA data for these counties were quite different than data for the Georgia counties. “CAMA and land parcel data are usually collected and developed at local levels,” says Johnson Gaither. “This creates a patchwork of valuable data that, unfortunately, is not integrated or standardized.”

However, the new method for identifying potential heirs’ properties will be useful to policy-makers and local organizations that provide legal help.

Because of variations in state laws, many local organizations primarily serve residents of just one state.

For example, heirs’ property owners in Georgia can contact the Georgia Heirs Property Law Center. Those in Alabama can contact the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund. In South Carolina, the Center for Heirs Property Preservation works to protect heirs’ property owners and their land.

Read the full text of the GTR.

Read the full text of the Land Use Policy paper.

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

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