SERA49: Heirs' Property: Impacts at Family, Community, and Regional Levels
(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)
SERA49: Heirs' Property: Impacts at Family, Community, and Regional Levels
Duration: 10/01/2023 to 09/30/2028
Statement of Issues and Justification
Heirs’ property—real property passed down across generations in the absence of a probated will—has long been recognized as a source of severe disadvantage for property owners (Browne 1973; Emergency Land Fund 1980; Graber 1978). The number of heirs with an ownership stake in a property may reach into the hundreds, and consensus regarding how the property should be maintained and used is often difficult to achieve (Zabawa et al. 1994). Because ownership is fractionated in complex ways, title to heirs’ property is considered “clouded.” The clouded nature of title to heirs’ property hinders the transference of intergenerational wealth, exacerbates persistent poverty, prevents built improvements, diminishes local tax bases, and all too frequently results in involuntary loss of land or other real property (Bailey and Thomson 2022; Deaton 2005; Rivers 2007; Mitchell 2014; Mitchell et al. 2010). These issues have been particularly concentrated among disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in the Southern region (Schulman et al. 1985). The scale of the problem is substantial, with an estimated 5.3 million acres of heirs’ property valued at $42 billion located in 11 states in Appalachia and the South (Thomson and Bailey Forthcoming).
Heirs’ property issues create numerous barriers to farmers and ranchers in accessing US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and services. The 2018 Farm Bill contained provisions making it possible for owners of heirs’ property to get a farm number and therefore gain access to operating loans. Other provisions provided funding to help owners of heirs’ property to clear title to their property. These provisions are just starting to be implemented and provide some positive support for heirs’ property owners. However, much more is needed to address the issue.
Because title to their property is considered clouded rather than clear, owners of heirs’ property are unable to access commercial mortgage markets for loans to improve their property, start a business, or make other investments to improve their quality of life. The result often is that homes fall into disrepair and decline in value, undermining an important source of household and intergenerational wealth (Bailey et al. 2019). Furthermore, USDA Rural Development programs designed to improve housing quality remain beyond the reach of heirs’ property owners.
In response to advice from its Technical and Operational Advisory Committee and its Board of Directors, beginning in 2018 the Southern Rural Development Center (SRDC) convened a multi-disciplinary network of researchers, Extension professionals, and leaders of community-based organizations (CBOs) to consider how Land Grant Universities (LGU) in the region could contribute to understanding and addressing challenges faced by owners of heirs’ property. In December 2018 with funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Seed Grant program, SRDC convened stakeholders to consider how to organize a regional approach to address the issue. With guidance from this steering committee, a larger convening was hosted in February 2020, during which time three working groups were formed: 1) Research, 2) Extension Education/Outreach, and 3) Policy. These have continued to meet on a regular basis. The meetings have proven to be an important networking opportunity for all involved. The award of a 5-year USDA NIFA AFRI grant in 2020 to the SRDC with 1890 LGU, 1862 LGU, USDA and community-based partners attests to the efforts of the working groups. The latter project focuses on the social and economic impact of heirs’ property at the regional level. Another research output includes the development of a special issue of the Journal of Rural Social Sciences focused on heirs’ property due to be published in 2023.
The group has been active around Extension education, including the creation, review, piloting, and evaluation of a train-the-trainer curriculum entitled, “Understanding Heirs’ Property at the Community Level.” With modules on the background and history, prevention, and mitigation of heirs’ property, the curriculum was piloted in 2022 in Atlanta and 2023 in Washington, DC in partnership between the SRDC, Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center, and Southern Extension Risk Management Education. Several more training sessions are planned.
Building on this momentum, our proposed project addresses important national and regional priorities associated with disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, problems of persistent poverty, and the need to conduct research to guide policy in these domains and develop educational materials and Extension programs for heirs’ property owners. Stakeholders of the proposed project include current/potential owners of heirs’ property, the civil society organizations which serve them, and the federal, state, and local governments responsible for implementing laws and policies that affect, and often constrain, options available to heirs’ property owners.
- The Need – The effective and ever-growing network, and the continued active engagement of researchers, legal practitioners, Extension professionals, USDA-Farm Services Agency, Rural Development and Forest Service personnel, and civil society leaders for over four years demonstrates the need for continued collaboration. The working group has over 50 participants, and a listserv of professionals interested in this work currently has 240 members. Formalizing this structure as a Southern Extension and Research Activity (SERA) would provide even more credibility and practical operations to the group’s work, allowing others with interest the opportunity to join and participate through this formalized approval process.
- Importance of the Work – The Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act (UPHPA) has made headway across the country, and more work is needed to understand the impact of such changes. Additionally, as the Federal Heirs’ Property Relending Program (HPRP) is rolled out and new provisions are being considered for the 2023 Farm Bill, research and programming are urgently needed to address the ongoing loss of family farms, land, and properties trapped under clouded title. These emerging efforts need a strong set of LGUs and other partners’ responses in order to ensure heirs’ property owners have the information and support they need to stabilize their ownership structure and to help prevent these challenges in the future.
- Feasibility – Understanding heirs’ property has come a long way since the early studies of Browne (1973), Graber (1978), and the Emergency Land Fund (1980). Big data aggregating county tax parcels and federal mortgage databases have enabled a rapid expansion in both the breadth and depth of heirs’ property research (Pippin et al., 2017; Dobbs and Johnson Gaither, forthcoming). New theoretical and methodological advances in the field will continue to emerge, attracting additional attention from researchers and practitioners. This expanding data coupled with rapidly expanding supportive efforts makes the environment for a productive SERA on this topic fertile for growth and productivity in an area of high importance to the South. Dobbs and Johnson Gaither (forthcoming) estimated that roughly 70 percent of all heirs’ property parcels are in ten southern states and West Virginia. Additionally, ethical issues are in need of attention to build best practices to avoid important research from being used by unscrupulous businesses seeking to exploit heirs’ property owners.
- Multistate Advantage – The success achieved over the past four years through the leadership and convening capacity of the existing network has demonstrated broad interest and commitment to addressing the issue of heirs’ property. Continued multistate collaboration will facilitate the exchange of ideas, data, findings, and strategies to address the challenges faced by owners of heirs’ property. Also, the areas hardest hit by heirs’ property are the Alabama Black Belt, Central Appalachia, Mississippi Delta, and possibly in colonias in some western states, all of which touch the Southern Region footprint (Johnson Gaither, 2016). Thus, this region has the most to gain in economic viability by working together on this issue. Furthermore, state policies vary and there is much to be gained by comparative, multistate approaches.
Likely Impacts – Building on successful collaborations involving faculty and administrators at 1890 and 1862 Land Grant Universities, law school attorneys from Harvard Law School and the Vermont Law and Graduate School, staff of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, USDA Forest Service, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, LiKEN, and others, the proposed project will build a stronger multidisciplinary and multifaceted network of professionals to address the needs of heirs’ property owners and help families avoid these challenges in the future. Expanding cutting edge research, training Extension professionals to aid families in navigating or preventing heirs’ property issues, and informing decision-makers on policy related issues are three of the expected areas of work. Together, these have the potential to shape decision-making on the individual, family, community, state, and federal levels, taking strides in protecting vulnerable populations from further loss of lands and economic benefits.
Increase multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations and networking efforts among Extension and research professionals addressing heirs’ property issues across the Southern Region.
Identify current and emerging issues specific to heirs’ property in the Southern Region.
Assess federal, state, and local government policies related to heirs’ property, including variations in county tax office practices, state property tax policies, and legal and policy options at the federal level necessary to meet the needs of heirs’ property owners.
Support civil society organizations in serving the needs of the ultimate stakeholder, the owners of heirs’ property.
Procedures and Activities
Network Development: We will build on our highly successful networking capabilities to ensure collaboration between researchers, Extension professionals, leaders of civil society organizations, state and federal agency personnel, and others to expand and disseminate knowledge. SRDC manages several listservs that support networking. One listserv is broad and includes anyone who has an interest in heirs’ property, and is used to disseminate information widely. A second listserv supports a steering committee which meets monthly to exchange information and mobilize efforts to support initiatives such as the recently inaugurated “train-the-trainer” workshops. In addition, separate email groups support a set of working teams on research, Extension/outreach, and policy/legal issues related to heirs’ property. Membership in these teams is open and the meetings provide valuable opportunities to share information. SRDC’s role as a convenor and facilitator has been instrumental in creating a vibrant community of scholars and practitioners. These efforts would continue and expand as a SERA, coupled with the organization of an annual comprehensive meeting and report.
Emerging and Current Issues Updates: We will monitor and evaluate legal and policy initiatives associated with heirs’ property. Because many of our members are involved in policy initiatives nationally and at the state level across the country, these activities will be fostered through quarterly virtual meetings in which members share activities and relevant initiatives. When members identify policy developments without a member-affiliate, we will invite a stakeholder involved in the initiative to attend the quarterly meeting and present on their work. The primary purpose of these meetings is to share ideas and policy developments across jurisdictions, as well as to support problem solving through discussion and sharing of experiences. These meetings will equip members to educate their organizations and communities about opportunities for legal and policy solutions addressing heirs’ property. The multiregional scope of the group will also enable members to identify differences in the way federal actions impact various regions of the United States and, through identifying common problems, to offer insights to federal policymakers concerning policy efficacy and improvement (e.g., heirs’ property programs in the Farm Bill). Where support for a policy solution or more robust evaluation of a policy’s efficacy is needed, these concerns will be translated to research questions that will be shared with the heirs’ property research community at Land-Grant institutions as immediate research needs.
Educational materials, Estate Planning, and Assistance: Through our networking activity, we will identify best practices and strategies for supporting owners of heirs’ property and potential heirs’ property owners through educational materials. The “train-the-trainer” workshops developed to increase capacity of Extension professionals to meet the needs of heirs’ property owners can be seen as an outgrowth of the Extension/Outreach team’s work. The team will continue to share information on funding and publication opportunities. Regular meetings frequently feature short presentations of recent work to the group, providing early access to data and findings by participants and valuable feedback to presenters.
Expected Outcomes and Impacts
- Continuation and expansion a successful, collaborative, multidisciplinary, and multistakeholder activity centered on communication and cooperation between researchers, Extension professionals, and civil society organizations working directly with owners of heirs’ property and those attempting to avoid heirs’ property situations. Comments: Current and past activities include networking, organizing, training, and publishing. Networking through the SRDC and the SDFR Policy Research Center at Alcorn State University, 1890 and 1862 Land-Grant Universities, Law Schools, and CBOs has produced funded proposals to investigate heirs’ property at the local, regional, and national levels. Examples of key points of interest include the relationship of heirs’ property and poverty/quality of life, and the impact of legislation (e.g., the UPHPA) on partition actions in the various states that have adopted the UPHPA. Through the organizing efforts of the SRDC, an educational package of training materials on heirs’ property was developed and is being presented in various locations in the Southern Region over the next two years. The peer-reviewed Journal of Rural Social Sciences is in the process of final edits to an issue on heirs’ property from the research, outreach, and legal perspectives. Moving forward under the proposed SERA, partners will continue to organize and communicate to advance collaboration on research, Extension, and integrated activities. Outcomes will include: a) expanded network membership to include more states, institutions, and individuals participating in activities; b) enhanced breadth and depth of participation in sub-group activities; c) increased collaboration to create co-authored funding proposals, research publications, and Extension materials; and d) connections with individuals and organizations in other regions to address heirs’ property concerns with more diverse groups.
- Enhance integrating research and Extension programming around heirs' property. Comments: Current outcomes to date are an on-going process and will be enhanced through the proposed SERA integrating research and Extension programming. First, train-the-trainer sessions have increased participants’ knowledge of various aspects of heirs’ property, as well as the skills needed to address heirs’ property issues. Second, at the same time, presenters have used the interactions in the workshop format to gain new information and modify the workshop materials accordingly. Third and finally, in terms of impacts or long-term gains, at the macro level, new and modified current policies and programs will be created, introduced, and adopted that focus on heirs’ property at the national and regional levels. At the mid-level, a cadre of educational/Extension/outreach personnel will be created to address heirs’ property at the local level. At the micro/individual level there will be an increase in the number of heirs’ property owners who take action to secure their land through titles, estate plans, and wills, and otherwise potential heirs’ property owners will avoid such challenges. Moving forward under the proposed SERA, partners will collaborate on research and curricula development to: a) update materials to address regional nuances in heirs’ property issues; b) create materials that are culturally appropriate to diverse racial, ethnic, language, and regional identities; and c) identify, and develop when needed, educational and technical materials that help heirs’ property owners make productive use of their land through connection with agricultural, forestry, and tourism opportunity programs. These enhancements will be guided by a strategic applied research process which directs stakeholder needs and the creation of new materials overtime.
Projected ParticipationView Appendix E: Participation
Through the network, various educational materials and programs have been developed including PowerPoint presentations, manuals, and reports. In addition, individual members of the network have worked with the SRDC and SDFR Policy Research Center, their own institutions, and directly with (or within) the USDA to provide information and operational guidance on heirs’ property. Examples of these include workshops, translation of materials, curriculum development, policy development, informational briefs, and other products. The continuation and expansion of these efforts is a key rationale for the current SERA proposal.
Under the proposed SERA, heirs’ property educational workshops will be delivered, both the train-the-trainer and community-level versions. The latter will be done through diverse state-level teams, led by 1890 Land-Grant partners in collaboration with 1862 and community-based organizations. An evaluation plan, including a workshop questionnaire and follow-up questionnaire concerning behaviors/actions taken after the training has been submitted to the Mississippi State University Institutional Review Board. The evaluation will be coordinated through the SRDC, with summary reports delivered back to the training teams and other relevant stakeholders. Additionally, SERA members will continue to provide and expand their offerings of educational presentations, workshops, and technical materials. This summary information will be reported annually as part of membership reports.
Coordination of activities under the proposed project would be the responsibility of a Chair, Co-Chair, and a Secretary elected by the membership. The current structure of a Steering Committee and individual working groups addressing Research, Legal and Policy, and Extension, Education, and Outreach will continue. Each working group will be facilitated by two co-leads. In addition to monthly and quarterly virtual meetings, an annual meeting will be held to share successes, challenges, and make plans for the coming year. This meeting will also advance progress on the annual report to be submitted and available in the National Information Management and Support System (NIMSS).
Bailey, Conner and Ryan Thomson. 2022. “Heirs Property, Critical Race Theory, and Reparations.” Rural Sociology. doi: 10.1111/ruso.12455
Bailey, Conner, Robert Zabawa, Janice Dyer, Becky Barlow, and Ntam Baharanyi. 2019. “Heirs’ Property and Persistent Poverty among African Americans in the Southeastern United States.” Pages 9-19 in Cassandra Johnson Gaither, Ann Carpenter, Tracy Lloyd McCurty, and Sara Toering (eds.), Heirs' Property and Land Fractionation: Fostering Stable Ownership to Prevent Land Loss and Abandonment. E-Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-244. September 2019. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Southern Experiment Station.
Browne, Robert S. 1973. Only Six Million Acres; A Decline of Black Owned Land in the Rural South. Report sponsored by Clark College of Atlanta, Georgia. New York: Black Economic Research Center.
Craig-Taylor, Phyliss. 2000. “Through a Colored Looking Glass: A View of Judicial Partition, Family Land Loss, and Rule Setting.” Washington University Law Review 78(3):737-788.
Deaton, B. James. 2005. “Land 'In Heirs': Building a Hypothesis Concerning Tenancy in Common and the Persistence of Poverty in Central Appalachia.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 11(1&2): 83–94.
Dobbs, G. Rebecca and Cassandra Johnson Gaither. (Forthcoming). “How Much Heirs’ Property Is There? Using LIGHTBOX + DMP Data to Estimate Heirs’ Property Extent in the U.S.” Journal of Rural Social Sciences.
Emergency Land Fund. 1980. The Impact of Heir Property on Black Rural Land Tenure in the Southeastern Region of the United States. Report submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Farmers Home Administration. Project Director: Attorney Rose Sanders. 591 p. Available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924067935720&view=1up&seq=5. Accessed on 24 May 2022.
Graber, C.S., 1978. “Heirs Property: The Problems and Possible Solutions.” Clearinghouse Rev., 12, p.273.
Johnson Gaither, Cassandra. 2016. “‘Have Not our Weary Feet Come to the Place for Which Our Fathers Sighed?’: Heirs’ Property in the Southern United States.” USDA Forest Service, e-General Technical Report, SRS-216. Asheville: NC. https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/gtr/gtr_srs216.pdf.
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Mitchell, Thomas W., Stephen Malpezzi, and Richard K. Green. 2010. “Forced Sale Risk: Class, Race and the ‘Double Discount’.” Florida State Law Review 37: 589–658.
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Schulman, Michael D., Patricia Garrett, Regina Luginbuhl, and Jody Greene. 1985. “Problems of Landownership and Inheritance among Black Smallholders.” Agriculture and Human Values 2(3):40-44.
Thomson, Ryan and Conner Bailey. (Forthcoming). “Heirs’ Property in Appalachia and the South: Extent, Value, and Effect on Social and Economic Well-Being.” Journal of Rural Social Sciences.
Zabawa, Robert, Ntam Baharanyi, and Mbedja Amougou. 1994. "Factors Associated with Black-Owned Land Loss." Journal of Agricultural & Food Information 24(4):23-41.