“Have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers sighed?”: heirs’ property in the southern United States
Heirs’ property is inherited land or real estate owned by two or more people as tenants in common. The property is typically passed to heirs without a will or with “clouded title” outside the formal probate process. This type of land tenure presents problems to its owners because it is very difficult for heirs to leverage such assets to enhance property values—for example, to use these assets as collateral to secure home improvement loans. Heirs’ property ownership also restricts landowner engagement with land improvement programs offered by State and Federal governments, again because of unclear titles. As well, unclear title carries the looming threat of displacement for family members who live on the land because any heir can petition a court to divide the land, which may be against the wishes of family members not interested in selling. Federal agencies like the Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, are interested in estimations of the extent of heirs’ property ownership because of their commitment to rural economic development. However, only a few studies have addressed estimations of this land tenure form or the culture of place that may have created it. As well, the bulk of the existing literature on this topic focuses mostly on issues arising from such ownership in the southern Black Belt. This literature review extends this scholarship to heirs’ properties among Native American tribes in the South. The review also covers the limited research directed to this issue in Appalachia and identifies future research areas.