"A Huge Problem in Plain Sight": Untangling Heirs' Property Rights in the American South, 2001-2017

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Abstract 

In 2005, massive hurricanes battered communities along the Gulf Coast of the United States. In the aftermath, thousands of families who lived on land passed down to them informally by parents and grandparents learned that because they lacked clear formal title to their properties, they were ineligible for disaster assistance to rebuild their homes. Related title issues in other regions kept families from developing inherited lands and allowed predatory developers to use court-ordered partition sales to grab long-held properties for pennies on the dollar. All those problems stemmed from the quirks of heirs' property, a form of communal landownership that gave each relative a partial share in a property but full rights to use and enjoy it-or force its sale. Beginning in 2001, before the hurricanes magnified the crisis, a coalition of scholars, lawyers, and activists united to draft and enact new state laws that would strengthen the rights of heirs' property owners. Advocates across the region helped affected families get public aid and build wealth. By 2017, those efforts were beginning to turn the tide, although many families remained unreached, unconvinced, or unable to agree on how to secure their land for future generations.

Gabriel Kuris drafted this case study based on interviews conducted in the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas in the United States in December 2017. Case published January 2018.

Keywords 
heir
property rights
land law
inheritance
tenancy
partition sale
land takings
forestry
rural property
Focus Area(s): 
Property Rights & Land
Critical Tasks: 
Collective action problems
Land registration
Property rights
Core Challenge: 
Collective action
Coordination
Credibility (trust)
Dispute resolution (compliance)
External agencies of restraint
Norm coordination
Country of Reform: 
United States
Type: 
Case Studies
Author: 
Gabriel Kuris