A bill before state lawmakers could offer better protection for Beaufort County heirs property owners, who are sometimes bullied out of ownership by third parties, according to local leaders.
The new protections would give families and judges handling the sale of heirs property a better chance to either hang on to the property or fetch a fair-market price at a sale, state Sen. Tom Davis said.
That's an essential protection for local families, especially because heirs properties are often historic and valuable, former Penn Center director Emory Campbell said.
Heirs property is land handed down without a will. In the Lowcountry, it most often refers to land passed down by former slaves and inherited by dozens of descendants.
There are about 40,000 acres of heirs property in the Lowcountry, including more than 3,300 acres in Beaufort County, according to estimates by the Charleston-based Center for Heirs Property Preservation.
Because there is no clear title for such properties, any heir can go to a judge seeking a share of the value. But under current law, the only way to determine the value of that property is to auction the land.
"All too often, a land speculator will purchase a fractional interest in property from an heir and then force a sale at public auction, which often results in the property being sold at well below market price," said Davis, R-Beaufort.
The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act would prevent that by giving judges handling those cases more flexibility, according to Davis, who said he intends to co-sponsor the bill.
"Among other things, it gives the judge discretion to sell the property not at auction, but on the open market over a period of time so that there is a better chance for descendants to receive a fair-market price," Davis said.
Often, local families who wish to keep their heirs property lose out when a third party or another heir forces a sale because the families don't have the resources to bid against a developer at an auction, Campbell said.
"That's primarily where the protection needs to be," said Josh Walden, attorney for the Center for Heirs Property Preservation.
Walden works with the nonprofit to help owners of heirs property obtain clear title and keep their family land. He has worked on several cases in Beaufort County.
"It's tough -- these cases are measured in years, not months," he said. "But this legislation will benefit those who are defending folks from those trying to force a sale."
That's a start toward helping solve an issue that has nagged the Lowcountry for years, Campbell said.
"It's a big need here, and heretofore it's been falling on deaf ears," he said. "But I'm glad the legislators are considering it, and I hope they will pass it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.