The South Carolina Senate is considering stronger protections for property owned by several heirs who had it passed down through generations without a clear title. Oftentimes, the land is split among a dozen or so family members. That has been the case of many rural properties handed down in black families since slavery.
Dr. Jennie Stephens, Executive Director of the nonprofit Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation is working to reach more landowners who struggle with this inheritance problem. For many of those landowners, she said auctioning the property in order to divide its value is often the only solution. Auctions usually garner a price less than market value.
A bill currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee would allow the land to be sold on the open market. In an interview with South Carolina Radio Network, Stephens explained that the bill would allow judges to consider more than a land’s dollar value.
“The family’s sentimental, ancestral, and historical attachment to the property and other factors must be weighed in, when it wasn’t in the past,” she said.
Stephens said the goal of her center is to protect heirs’ property and promote its sustainable use for the economic benefit of what are often low-income families. Stephens said the center holds a series of wills clinics for family members who inherited the shared property. “We enlist the assistance of for-profit attorneys and we go out into communities and draft wills on-site,” she said. “So, individuals that day walk away with a simple will in their hands.”
She said the center has also successfully probated 19 cases involving 24 titles estates to help prevent an heirs’ property problem.
Stephens said the organization has recently instituted a sustainable forestry program for persons who want to get monetary gain from the land without giving up ownership. “Here is now a tool where families cannot only hold on to their land, but this land can now generate income for them while there holding on to it and preparing for future generations.” The program is being funded through a $425,000 grant from the federal government.
The center serves six counties: Dorchester, Berkeley, Georgetown, Colleton, Charleston and Beaufort. Stephens said one of the more difficult steps for African-American families is piecing together a family tree because many of their ancestors may have left the original family homestead to go north.
“You have to complete the genealogy. (For example) It’s not about only naming Betty, Sue or John, but you need to know who Betty Sue and John were married to, when they died, how many children they had, when they were born.”
Stephens said during a 2011 mapping project conducted by the center, about 41,000 acres of land was identified as heirs’ property.