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Don’t Assume Big Mama's House Will Stay in the Family

Billions in African Americans’ generational wealth has been seized or sold off using red tape, racist policies and property tax penalties. Protect what’s yours.

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Woman upset, house splitting into pieces, pie chart, illustration
Chiara Ghigliazza
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When a relative joins the ancestors, you expect to experience feelings of grief. What you may not be prepared for is being blindsided by property loss or financially devastating disputes over what was intended to be a blessed legacy. Yet many Black families are finding themselves in that unfortunate situation. Consider the following scenarios:

  • After caring for a now deceased parent, you're evicted from the childhood home you assumed you would inherit.
  • Distant cousins you've never met lay claim to Grandma's rowhouse – legally.
  • An uncle sold his portion of Granddad's farmland and now powerful developers holding that stake are pressuring relatives to sell the rest of the lot.
  • The colonial your parents bought in the 70s for $25,000 is now worth $650,000. But you don’t have the money to pay the back taxes that are owed and you're in danger of losing the house through tax foreclosure.

Next week in Sisters From AARP newsletter: More steps you can take to protect what’s yours.

A lot of our clients are in areas that… gentrified…Properties are…almost a million dollars. So, if the taxes owed are more than $2,500, which is often the case, those properties can end up on the tax foreclosure sale.
Tina Nelson, a senior managing attorney with AARP's Legal Counsel for the Elderly.  

It’s shameful, shocking and systemic

It can take many generations for a family to build wealth, but only one generation to lose it. That's a lesson being learned by too many Black families as developers, scammers and internal strife are just some of the threats that can put our inherited property at risk.

Just ask Kimberly Ann, who has asked that her last name be withheld. Her family is currently embroiled in a fight for their fair share of property and royalties from oil that flows under a swathe of land in Arkansas.

Across the country, there are cases of Black people who have lost their land or their homes in ways that are questionable if not illegal.

Kimberly Ann is the descendent of "Old Joe," a freed slave who married three times and had three lines of descendants. One of Old Joe's sons, Jim J.W. Edwards, owned more than 417 acres of land in Arkansas at the time of his death in 1946.

Edwards died without a will so his property was deemed heirs' property – land jointly owned by legal descendants of a deceased person because there is no will and the property has not cleared the probate process. Edwards and his wife had no children, so the land was to be divided up and given to descendants from the lines of each of Edward's father, Joe's, three unions – one from which Kimberly Ann is a descendant.

When the land was divvied up, [the] siblings received $72.51 each and…royalty checks worth pennies for the oil that was drilled from the land. Yet oil companies have made more than $2 million.

Heirs' property—historic loophole for looting family wealth

But as with many heirs' property cases, things didn't go very smoothly. So many people had a stake in the property that no one had the power to make meaningful decisions. In addition to current family members from the different lines fighting amongst themselves, Kimberly Ann's ancestors had to contend with legal action by the state of Arkansas up until 1953 requiring them to prove they were Joe's descendants. The Court even questioned whether Old Joe had really married Ann's ancestor Patsy while they were both slaves, calling on the former slave owner's daughter to come testify. "She was in her nineties, and she came in and confirmed that yes, they truly were married," Ann says.

Once Ann's ancestors proved they were heirs, they still didn't get all that they believed was owed to them. During the legal proceedings in the 1950s, the Court awarded the attorneys involved a large portion of the property as compensation. When the remaining land was divvied up, Ann says her grandmother and her grandmother's siblings received $72.51 each and would occasionally receive royalty checks that were literally worth pennies for the oil that was drilled from the land. The last check family members received was for ten cents in 1995. Yet oil companies have made more than $2,000,000 in proceeds from the family's land, she adds.

One child may say, 'I was the one taking dad to the doctor and taking care of him so why should [others] get part of the property? But legally they're an heir unless there's a will in place.
Tina Nelson, a senior managing attorney with AARP's Legal Counsel for the Elderly.  

Some family members were also approached about selling their portions of the land for less than it was worth. With so many people seeming to come after the land, "they preyed on our family," she says.

And not just her family. During the 20th century, Black families in America lost an estimated $326 billion in farmland. Researchers point to discriminatory lending practices and forced sales linked to heirs’ property as factors.

As Ann's family awaits the outcome of their legal battle, similar stories are being played out across the country, says Kavon Ward, founder of Where Is My Land, an organization that helps Black Americans regain ownership of heirs' property. Where Is My Land is an outgrowth of Justice for Bruce's Beach, a grassroots movement launched to support the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce, a Black couple whose beachfront property in Manhattan Beach, California was unjustly taken from them in 1929. The Bruces owned a resort for Black tourists when local officials seized the property to turn it into a public park. They paid the Bruces $14,500 – less than their property was worth. Nearly a century later, the county of Los Angeles returned the property to the Bruce descendants in 2022 and those descendants cashed in by selling it back to Los Angeles County for nearly $20 million.

Movie mogul Tyler Perry recently made headlines by announcing he would help 93-year-old Josephine Wright save her home from developers who are trying to pressure her to sell by claiming that part of her land is on their property.

While the Bruce family received restitution, other families have had less-positive outcomes. A documentary called "Silver Dollar Road," was recently produced about the Reels family in North Carolina. It tells the story of Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, two brothers who were third-generation descendants of a landowner named Elijah Reels. When the brothers' grandfather died without a will, the property became heirs' property so all living heirs were legally granted a portion. A distant uncle sold his share of the property, and the new owners ordered the brothers to vacate the land where they were still living at the time. They ended up spending nearly eight years in jail for refusing to do so. While they're free today, they're still fighting for the property.

Red meat for real estate investors

Across the country, there are cases of Black people who have lost their land or their homes in ways that are questionable if not illegal. Many of the cases Ward has seen are in the South and the Midwest. Properties like Ann's where oil has been found on the land are particularly desirable to investors and developers, she says. "This is not something that's just happened in the past," Ward says. "It's still happening today."

With housing prices steadily rising, investors and real estate developers are always on the hunt for new properties. Many target heirs' property since it may not be lived in or it may be owned by multiple people who have different ideas about what should be done with the property. Movie mogul Tyler Perry recently made headlines by announcing he would help 93-year-old Josephine Wright save her home from developers who pressured her to sell by claiming that part of her land is on their property. Ms. Wright passed away in mid-January. Perry, who built her a new home away from the disputed boundary, presented the keys to her heirs.

Families who are struggling financially may also be attractive targets for unscrupulous investors. For example, a ProPublica investigation found that the company behind the "We Buy Ugly Houses" campaign often focuses their efforts on homeowners who need money fast. Deed theft, a phenomenon where fraudsters take out loans or cash in on houses they don't own, can also leave families vulnerable to losing their properties.

Some families lose their property because they don't have a will that clearly designates a person to inherit it.

Some families lose their property because they don't have a will that clearly designates a person to inherit it. Black Americans are less likely to have a will than white Americans. Black Americans are also less likely to inherit a house – or anything else – from parents and older relatives. Losing property is particularly damaging to the Black community because we already trail whites in homeownership with a rate of 46.4 percent compared to 75.8 percent for white Americans.

Sibling squabbles and family sell-outs

Then there are the threats from within the family. One of the biggest: family squabbles. Investors who are looking for land can often find it easier to take land from families when there is animosity or friction within the family, Ward says. For example, one or more family members may not get along with the others or they may be willing to sell their portion of the property, often for less than it's worth, to unscrupulous parties, giving them an 'in' to the property. Ward recommends looking for ways to pacify those family members such as by buying them out or creating a family trust to buy them out.

Some families lose property because taxes aren't paid and the homes go into tax foreclosure, says Tina Nelson, a senior managing attorney with AARP's Legal Counsel for the Elderly. "A lot of our clients are living in areas that may have been gentrified and so we're talking about properties that are like $500,000 -- almost a million dollars," Nelson says. "So if the taxes that are owed are more than $2,500, which is often the case, those properties can end up on the tax foreclosure sale."

A distant uncle sold his share of the property, and the new owners ordered the brothers to vacate the land where they were still living at the time. They ended up spending nearly eight years in jail for refusing to do so.

Others expect to inherit the family home only to find that the homeowner didn't make a will, meaning the property has to go through the costly probate process and could end up heirs' property. "One child may say, 'I was the one taking dad to the doctor and taking care of him so why should they get part of the property?" Nelson says. "But legally they're an heir unless there's a will in place."

When families lose their property, they also lose the ability to leverage their home for a loan or to send a child to college, for example, says Nelson. The best way to keep that from happening is to keep a home from becoming heirs' property in the first place by creating a will. "We call it life planning," says Nelson. "We're planning for the rest of your life -- what will happen as you age, with your property, with your assets."

Ann hopes that her story will help other families who have lost land, as well as those who still have the power to protect the property they have. "I pray that our story gets the exposure it needs and that it helps prevent other families from going through this," she says.

Follow Article Topics: Work-&-Money