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Keeping Big Mama's House: How Families Fight Back

How to help make sure heirs property stays in the family.

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illustration of family relatives grabbing ahold of roof from house, heirs property
Chiara Ghigliazza
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Last week, in an article titled Don’t Assume Big Mama's House Will Stay in the Family, the editors of Sisters From AARP shared how easily Black families are losing land and homes that were intended as their legacy. With over 2 trillion dollars’ worth of real estate owned by African Americans, these threats to our generational wealth can be devastating. Families are seeing property worth in some cases millions of dollars slip through their fingers or learning of family homes being lost generations ago to racist or unscrupulous predators.

With over 2 trillion dollars’ worth of real estate owned by African Americans, these threats to our generational wealth can be devastating.


In this article you will learn:

1. How to search for valuable ancestral land to which you may have a claim.

2. Where to turn if you suspect you are due real estate reparations.

3. How to help make sure, via simple legal means, that real estate that a relative intends to pass to you after death will actually transfer to you as owner.

4. Where to find help if unpaid taxes threaten your current or future inheritance.

5. Ways to help avoid a family feud over who gets what and who pays what when a relative passes.

6. How to chart a path forward when a property passes down to a large number of kin.

No matter how contentious a property fight may be, there's one thing that everyone can agree on. According to research from the RAND Corporation, white Americans hold 10 times more wealth than Black Americans, so we can't afford to lose the generational wealth that we currently have.

Families are seeing property worth in some cases millions of dollars slip through their fingers or learning of family homes being lost generations ago to racist or unscrupulous predators.


Whether you own a home, expect to inherit one or discover you have a stake in heirs' property, these tips may help you keep the house that your mama or your grandmama or your uncle owned in the family.

Talk about inheritance issues before someone dies. Some people are surprised to find themselves in danger of losing the family home. "We run into issues where clients thought their parents might have had a will, but their parents didn't have a will, or they only have a copy of the will and not the original," says Tina Nelson, a senior managing attorney with AARP's Legal Counsel for the Elderly. In a case such as that, even if you lived in the home with a parent, the lack of a will could lead the house to be designated heirs' property or, worse, taken from the family entirely. To avoid unwanted surprises, talk to your parents or family elders who are homeowners about the importance of leaving a will that details who will get the family home after their death.

Work it out within the family. Don't allow for people to come in, divide and conquer.
Kavon Ward, founder of Where Is My Land, an organization that helps Black Americans regain ownership of heirs' property.


Know your family history. On the flip side, some people are surprised to learn they have a stake in heirs' property when a distant relative dies without a will or someone in the family does some digging and discovers old property records that show that a piece of land should still be in the family's hands. If you know of land that used to belong in your family and want to look up the ownership, check local courthouse records for title changes to the land. You can also check the National Archives for land records in the states your ancestors lived in. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators also keeps a database of unclaimed money and other property across the United States.

Take time to do the planning. Many people don't like to think about what should happen to their property after they die. "But that leaves our community susceptible to fraud, trickery and deception, which leads to the loss of our property," says Lisa G. McCurdy, managing partner of The Wealth Counselor, an estate planning firm in Washington, DC. Think about who you want to have your property, as well as who you know will take care of it.

Do a transfer on death (TOD) deed. In some states, you can sign a legal document designating that your property go to a beneficiary of your choice when you die. If you're the owner of a piece of property and you want to pass it down to children or other relatives, a TOD provision lets you do that without your beneficiaries having to go through the probate process even if you don't create a will. "The transfer deed is the best thing to do," says Nelson. If your state doesn't accept them, your next best option is to make a will, Nelson says.

Hold official family meetings. When there is heirs property in the family, McCurdy suggests meeting at least once a year with all family members who own a portion of it. Not only will meetings help distant factions of the family to get to know one another and potentially cut down on family disagreements, but they can be used to discuss how the family property can benefit everyone, such as by generating income for scholarships or charitable donations. Also come up with a set of shared family values to guide decision-making.

Make sure property taxes are paid on time. If your family doesn't pay the taxes on the house, it can go into tax foreclosure where someone else can buy it. You may be able to pay the back taxes, but you may also be responsible for tens of thousands of dollars in attorney's fees in the process of trying to get the property back, Nelson says. "The best way to not have to deal with that is to make sure that the property taxes are paid and they're paid on time," Nelson says. When there are multiple heirs designate someone to be responsible for ensuring the taxes are paid and collecting contributions from all family members.

Know where to go for help. If you do own a piece of heirs property that's in danger of being lost or is no longer in your hands, look into state legal services programs, Nelson suggests. You can also contact your local bar association and ask if they can direct you to a legal services program in your area, she adds.

Staying together as a family is paramount, as a house divided is more likely to fall. "Work it out within the family. Don't allow for people to come in, divide and conquer," says Kavon Ward, the founder of Where Is My Land, an organization that helps Black Americans regain ownership of heirs' property. "That is a huge tactic that was used in the past and it's still being used today."

Follow Article Topics: Work-&-Money