Officials tackle heirs property in city of Beaufort

emoody@beaufortgazette.comMarch 10, 2012 

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When a New York social services agency tried to help Lulu Allen sell her childhood home in Beaufort to pay medical expenses, her caseworker ran into a problem -- Allen might not be the sole owner of the property the home sits on.

"My mother knows her quite well, so from the minute we found out about it, we tried to reach the family in Port Royal," Northwest Quad Neighborhood Association President Dwayne Smalley said. "People need to get together and come to a solution before they come to these desperate situations."

Allen and her caseworke from the Family Service Society of Yonkers, could not be reached for comment, but the Historic Beaufort Foundation is trying to help the caseworker find heirs who might also have claim to the property, according to association assistant Maxine Lutz.

Allen's situation is emblematic of the sort of problems heirs property can entail for those with a claim to it. It also can be a problem for municipal officials who would like property to be preserved or redeveloped.

Heirs property is the term used for land owned by numerous family members who received it as an inheritance, typically after an ancestor has died without a will, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice website. It is most common amongst blacks in southern states.

About 3,000 acres of Beaufort County is classified as "heirs property," according to the Charleston-based Center for Heirs' Property.

Without a clear title, families cannot get mortgages or grants for repairs, or sell the land without a lengthy legal process, according to center executive director Jennie Stephens.

"We want to make sure people are able to hold on to their land and preserve the land their ancestors left to them," Stephens said.

Sometimes, heirs property is abandoned, creating an eyesore that cannot be easily fixed, even by county or municipal governments, because of the legal questions about its ownership.

County Administrator Gary Kubic associates the problem with rural areas. However, city of Beaufort officials say they struggle with it, too, particularly in downtown neighborhoods like the Northwest Quadrant, according to Councilman Mike McFee.

A GIFT OF LAND

In Beaufort County, many heirs properties can be traced to the end of the Civil War, when newly freed slaves began acquiring land, Stephens said. The land became a legacy passed down through family members, a place that was home no matter how far people moved.

"Heirs property -- it's a gift," Stephens said.

The center works with residents in six counties, including Beaufort County, to help owners of heirs property get clear title to their land.

A prevalent attitude among owners was that the state would take care of passing land to heirs, county attorney Josh Gruber said, so many didn't write wills outlining who got what.

"They still consider it to be a family land, and it didn't really matter to them that they had a piece of paper on who owned it," he said.

Complicating matters is that as the land is passed through the generations, more and more ancestors own a share of it. Some live out of the area and may not even realize they have a stake in the property. As ownership is spread out, so is responsibility.

When buildings on that land fall into decay, the value decreases, McFee said. In cases where the building is not salvageable, even the ground it stands on is worth less because of demolition costs.

FOR THE HEIRS

Stephens say the first step in resolving title problems is writing a will that stipulates who will own the land in the future. The heirs property center is trying to conduct workshops in Beaufort County to teach people how to do this; it seeks volunteer lawyers to write simple wills, she said. Those workshops will be announced as they are planned.

However, questions about current heirs' ownership still should be resolved.

"The key to successfully clearing heirs property is getting along with your family," Stephens said.

Most problems with resolving heirs property stem from a disagreement among heirs about what to do with it. About 60 percent of the center's clients find a solution during "family presentations," at which the joint owners discuss family relationships and what should be done with the property, she said.

Heirs can also sell their interest in the property, or take legal action to force a sale. In that case, the land is sold either in pieces or whole, in which case each heir receives a portion of the sale, according to the Land Loss Prevention Project.

It can cost about $10,000 to clear the title on one acre of property with 11 heirs, she said. Even with free legal services at the center, the accompanying legal paperwork can cost about $2,000, she estimated.

And for many heirs in this area, Stephens said, that expense is part of the problem.

"They are land rich, cash poor," she said.

A GOVERNMENT TOOL

As the center tries to help owners get clear title to their land, city officials are keeping an eye on two bills before the General Assembly that could help them deal with heirs property that has been neglected.

Senate and House versions of the Rehabilitation of Abandoned and Dilapidated Buildings Act would allow municipalities to appoint a third-party business or organization to fix up problem properties. That third party would recoup costs through liens, rent or, in some cases, sale of the property.

Property owners would be given a chance to pay back the investment and keep their property, an aspect city Redevelopment Chairman Jon Verity finds appealing.

"We want to help people first who want to be helped," he said. "They may not have the money to do this now and this may be a way for us to assure them long-term ownership of the property in return for working with somebody," he said

McFee acknowledged this tool could face opposition by residents concerned about property rights, and with that in mind it would be a "last resort" for city officials,

"It sends a very strong message that we are not going to just sit back and let the neighborhood fall into disrepair," he said.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeonBeaufort.

Related content:

Heirs property class scheduled Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2012

Free seminar to be held about heirs' property, Oct. 5, 2010

Respect place, people who built this community, July 7, 2008 Southern Coalition for Social Justice heirs' property information

Centers for Heirs' Property website Heirs' Property Law Center website

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