Chamber hosts heirs’ property forum

Published 2:16 pm Thursday, June 8, 2023

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By: Tana Shealey, Lowndes County Extension Coordinator

The Lowndes County Area Chamber of Commerce (LCACC) hosted a forum on May 25 aimed at teaching families about heirs’ property. Heirs’ property occurs when a landowner dies without a will.

Ozelle Hubert, LCACC president, said the meeting shared much needed information. 

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“This is information that our communities need to be more aware of,” Hubert stated. “One of the areas that we talked about was the need for improvements on land, but if a person doesn’t know who owns the land, how can the improvements be made? That’s a big problem in Lowndes County.”

Chamber member Cynthia Payton Carter said she wants to learn more about heirs’ property to share information with others.

“I had a real interest in learning about it because I had been misled about heirs’ property. Almost every African American family runs into the problem when family members die without a will,” Payton Carter said.

Auburn University Assistant Professor Ryan Thomson said Lowndes County ranks eighth in estimates of total acreage of heirs’ property in the state.

“The number of parcels is relatively low suggesting a larger than average parcel size with several sizable tracts and well over a hundred acres remaining trapped,” said Thomson. “One interesting note that came up during the community forum was that many individuals held an undivided interest in surrounding counties too such as Wilcox and Dallas which also struggle with similar probate issues.”

So why does heirs’ property create problems for families? 

Thomson said families living on heirs’ property could lose their land and the benefits of being landowners.

“Heirs’ property is particularly vulnerable to loss through tax sales and forced partition sales sometimes brought on by distant family members or even malicious developers seeking to take the property for pennies on the dollar,” said Thomson. “The biggest burden for individuals residing on the property is that they technically only own a fraction of the property alongside their co-heirs. They cannot use the property as collateral, obtain credit, access mortgages, or even timber the property without a signed agreement from all their co-heirs.”

Thomson said one of the stories shared during the workshop was from a Lowndes County family whose land was stolen from both their mother and father’s family by the same man. 

Thomson said the stories of loss help others. 

“There are lessons to be learned from these tragedies,” Thompson said. “For example, there are several massive tracts of beautiful land that are incredibly undervalued. This is the type of situation where a real estate speculator has stolen from families elsewhere. Such malicious speculators start by calling random cousins, often outside of the state, offering them several thousand dollars for their share in a property valued in the millions. People sell because they do not know what they’ve really got. If someone is calling about your property, it means you have something valuable that they want.”

Thomson, and his colleagues Extension Specialist Portia Johnson, Extension Specialist Adam Rabinowitz, and attorney Jacy Fisher are working with the Lowndes County Extension office to hold future workshops on heirs’ property and similar topics. 

“I have gotten call after call about how helpful and knowledgeable the team that spoke at the seminar was. As a member of the LCACC, I want to see things like this coming into the county, so we all can learn,” Payton Carter said.

For more information about heirs’ property, call the Lowndes County Extension Office at 334-548-2315.