Protecting Heirs Property Rights

The incoming Biden administration and House Ag Committee Chair David Scott have signaled their commitment to work on many of the challenges they say impact black farmers.

Roughly 40 percent of black-owned farmland is “heirs property” or land passed down from generation to generation without a will or clear title. The practice stems from a post Civil War lack of legal access for many African American farmers.

Thomas Mitchell, a law professor at Texas A&M, says that a lack of clear title can prevent farmers from accessing federal resources.

According to Mitchell, “Without having a clear title to your property, you are ineligible for a wide range of commercial loans where you need your property as collateral, and you also are not entitled to participate in a wide range of state and federal programs, including programs at USDA, FEMA, HUD.”

The 2018 Farm Bill included language for USDA to allow alternative documentation for heirs property owners to apply for a farm number needed for almost all USDA programs from lending to disaster assistance.

Two years later, USDA is also still in the process of creating the regulations for the Heir’s Property Relending Program

“It also provides a pilot program to enable families to restructure, to get a loan on good terms,” Mitchell states. “So, they can restructure their ownership into something that is a much more stable form, and they can get a will or estate plan.”

The Farm Bill also includes a provision that expands benefits for heir property farmers in states that pass the Uniform Partition Act, a piece of legislation that Mitchell helped draft.

He says that a key challenge for policy makers is the lack of accurate data on how heirs property is being used.

“They own agricultural land but they’re not using it for active farm operations, sometimes they are just letting it lay fallow, sometimes they are renting it out to someone else, that’s not captured in the USDA. So it’s critical at a state and federal level that we get enhanced data collection,” he explains.

Dr. Karama Neal, President of Southern Bancorp Community Partners, has both personal and professional experience helping families navigate the challenges of heirs property.

She says that many families agree on wanting to keep the land, but often disagree on what to do with it.

According to Neal, “Sometimes where there is not agreement, often because there is not a lot of knowledge, is what else can I do with this property; it’s not just about the past, the past is absolutely critical, but it’s also about the future and how do we think about this property going forward.”

Despite the challenges, she says that it is important to remember that land is an asset for families: “Just as we recognize what those problems are and work to try to solve those and remedy them, it’s also really critical to recognize what we refer to as the promise, the opportunity, the positive things that come from having family bound together a little bit in a joint effort that can really be beneficial to all the family members.”

Farmers and ranchers looking for resources to help manage their heirs property can click HERE.