One of the main challenges of owning heirs' property is that without clear title — which occurs through a legal process that replaces the deceased person's name from the deed with the names of his living heirs — a family is unable to secure a mortgage or access financial assistance or benefit from government programs to improve their property.
Often the result is that family members pay taxes on land and property that they are unable to improve. Without access to financial assistance to renovate or rehabilitate the property, the land can become neglected and viewed as a neighborhood blight.
Equally challenging is the fact that every heir has the right to full use, benefit and enjoyment of their family land. Therefore, the decision of one heir impacts all of the heirs, including the ownership status of all.
In the Lowcountry, this type of land is often owned by African American families whose tradition was to orally pass down their possessions, including their land.
"Resolving heirs' property issues is a complex and rigorous process, which would be daunting for any family to undertake," said Tish Lynn, director of communications at the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation, a nonprofit organization that serves 15 Lowcountry counties, providing legal education and direct legal services to resolve heirs' property title issues.
What role do cities and towns play? And how can they help?
"Municipal officials can help heirs' property families by fully understanding the rights, risks and responsibilities of owning heirs' property and by valuing the unique and historic legacy that these properties represent," said Lynn.
Since the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation began in 2005, city and county officials in South Carolina have made many heirs' property referrals. The center's early calls for help frequently came from property owners who were seeking city or county financial assistance to rehabilitate their homes — only to find out that they didn't qualify because they owned heirs' property.
Summerville Planning Director Jessi Shuler could recall about half a dozen instances when town officials suggested residents contact the center.
"Sometimes it's not that they have to go through a process with us," she said. "They just don't know who else to call."
The public has misconceptions, too — that heirs' property owners often lose their property because they don't pay their taxes.
"Although that may be true for some, we have found that there is almost always one responsible family member who continues to pay the taxes, whether they live on the land or not," said Lynn.
The only way to resolve heirs' property title issues is through a legal process.
"Once the title is cleared, these families can begin to realize the asset — rather than the liability — of landownership," said Jennie Stephens, executive director of the center.
"With a clear title, they can obtain a mortgage or a loan to improve their property or, perhaps, start a small business. This is not only important to their financial health and future, but to their community as a whole."
When residents need expert help
For one Summerville woman, the quest for a clear property title began with an accidental fire.
After the blaze destroyed her mobile home, the resident sought to start over on the same small piece of land. She went to Summerville Town Hall to request a variance because the lot was too small to meet setback requirements for a new structure.
"In our ordinance, only a property owner can request a variance," said Summerville Planning Director Jessi Shuler.
That's when things got a little more difficult.
The deed to the land only listed the woman's grandfather's name, Shuler recalled. So the resident needed the title "cleared" through a legal process replacing her deceased relative's name with her own.
"We did some further research with the county and probate," said Shuler. "And we figured out it was heirs' property, and she was one of multiple property owners."
The Summerville woman's case was complicated. About a dozen relatives owned a percentage of the land.
Heirs' property is property that has been passed down without a will or when an estate was not legally probated through the court system, according to the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation in Charleston. Multiple family members then share common ownership.
"It wasn't just a simple, 'Let me get in touch with my three brothers,'" said Shuler. So she referred the woman to the center.
Some five months later, the Summerville resident had a clear title to the property.
"Their center's lawyers helped her," said Shuler. "She was able to submit for the variance and got her mobile home and is on the site living there now. It all worked out, fortunately. That was definitely a nice ending. She was thankful to us and, of course, to the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation."
Learn more about heirs' property at the SC Community Development Association's annual meeting on May 18 at the Marriott in North Charleston.