MSU extension resources help with inheritance property issues – Picayune Item
By Bonnie Coblentz
MSU Extension Service
STARKVILLE, Mississippi – A statute known as “heir property” legally binds thousands of acres of land across Mississippi, making it nearly impossible for owners to capitalize on the value of their assets.
Ownership of heirs is land that has been passed from one generation to the next without specific ownership, increasing the number of owners. Some owners know they own part of the property, while others may not even know they are legal owners.
In the South, about a third of the land held by African Americans – about 3.5 million acres – is held as heir property. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, since 1910, the heir property system has been responsible for the loss of 80% of farmland belonging to previous generations by African American landowners. Ownership of heirs is the leading cause of unintentional land loss among African Americans.
The Mississippi State University Extension Service is one of many organizations facing this problem. Legal organizations have formed to deal with heir ownership issues and other justice issues, and the federal government recently set aside grant funds to help address some of these land ownership issues.
Mary Nelson Robertson, project manager at MSU Extension Service, said many people are unaware of the implications of not having an estate plan or will in place for landowners.
âExtension has a long history of helping farm producers, landowners, and families across the state, so it’s important for Extension to start having more conversations about heir ownership,â said Robertson.
Estate planning, while it can be difficult to speak and do, is essential to ensure that assets – especially land – are transferred as owners wish.
âSharing your plans with your family can help prevent land deterioration or loss and family disagreements. It’s never too early to make an estate plan and start talking about it with the family, âsaid Robertson.
Vangela Wade, president and CEO of the Jackson-headquartered Mississippi Center for Justice, said that when families do not leave a will transferring ownership, state law deals with dispersal.
âAll the heirs have an undivided interest in the property. This creates what is called a lack of clear title or a cloud over the title of that property, âsaid Wade. âYou might know who the heirs are, but the law doesn’t know who they are or if there are unknown heirs.
âMississippi law determines who inherits if you don’t have a will, and the law prioritizes relationships,â she said. âWhen you inherit land without a will, you inherit jointly with all the heirs. Not all property owners may agree on what to do with it, and the lack of clear title can decrease the value of the property for sale or for rent.
Veronica McLendon, a lawyer in Macon, Georgia, with expertise in heir property, spoke at an MSU-Extension sponsored webinar on this issue in August. She said the number of homeowners can increase exponentially as the land passes from one generation to the next.
“This results from the failure to document the transfer of legal title when the owner dies,” McLendon said. “Often times we see that no one is living on the property, and the existing co-owners have equal rights to use the property.”
McClendon said his goal is to see the land managed for profitable use. This process includes clear title, creating a lasting ownership structure, and finding ways to keep ownership going.
âSome actions require the cooperation of all co-owners: selling, harvesting timber, borrowing against land,â said McClendon. âThe property of the heirs can also become subject to the debts of the co-owners.
When a family finds out that their property is related as the property of the heirs, it takes several steps to clear the title so that the names on the title match the living people. By sale or gift, owners must consolidate title into one or more names, including a trust. Owners must use the property profitably, so this is an asset and not a liability. And they have to make a legal plan on how the property will be transferred in the future.
“None of we have all the information we need, so hire a consultant to help you achieve your goals, âsaid McClendon.
Becky Smith, director of the MSU Extension Center for Economic Education and Financial Literacy, is part of a team that is developing a program to help people take the necessary steps to resolve heir property issues. The effort has the support of MSU Extension, the Southern Rural Development Center and the US Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
“We are creating a program for extension professionals and community educators so that more people understand the problem and can give accurate information to help landowners prepare to make the title clearing process easier and cheaper. Smith said.
She said the program will be created and delivered so that landowners in 17 states in the SRDC region can use it.
âIt’s a difficult process because states and localities have different rules and processes for clearing titles,â Smith said. âWe will be piloting webinars and written materials in Mississippi, then doing the necessary revisions and running regional training-of-trainers workshops. The material will eventually be made available on a website and in a course learning management system.
To contact the Mississippi Center for Justice with specific heir property issues, call 800-452-HEIR or email [email protected]