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NAACP Supports Uniform Heirs Property Laws

WHEREAS, African-American land ownership has rapidly declined, and according to a U.S. Agriculture Census data on African-American farmland ownership, it has experienced a drastic decline from its peak of 15 million acres in 1910 to 2.4 million acres in 1997; and

WHEREAS, "heirs property" is created when a landowner dies without a will and his or her property is passed down to two or more heirs, who are then co-owners. If one of those heirs then dies, their portion of the property passes to their heirs, causing there to be even more total co-owners of the property; and

WHEREAS, "heirs property" is a form of land ownership that is common in African American and low-income communities, since many do not draft wills; and

WHEREAS, "heirs property" is often owned within a single family for multiple generations, sometimes spanning a century or longer, and often has enormous historical, ancestral, or other significant non-economic value in addition to its financial value; and

WHEREAS, any one of the co-owners has the right to ask a court for a partition sale, no matter how small their share or how little time they have been a co­ owner. In this case the court will either: a) physically divide the entire property among the co-owners so that each has their own separate piece; or b) sell the entire property at auction so that the owner can get money for his/her interest; and

WHEREAS, the court can choose to sell the property at auction if it is proven that the property cannot be divided, which in many states means simply that a) the value of the property would go down if it were divided; b) the divided pieces would be worth less than the property sold as a whole (which is nearly always true); or c) division might be "inconvenient" for even one owner; and

WHEREAS, there is no requirement that auctioned property sell for fair value, and the co-owner seeking sale is often the only one who can afford to bid; and

WHEREAS, the attorney who brought the partition sale action takes his fee from the sale proceeds before they are divided, meaning that all of the owners essentially pay for the attorney, even if they opposed the sale; and

WHEREAS, land developers or speculators who cannot convince all of the co­ owners to sell need only acquire one owner's interest, at which point they can force a partition sale and then (as the only party with cash on hand) buy the entire tract of land for a fraction of its actual value, forcing off the land any family members who may have lived on the property their whole lives.

WHEREAS, the USDA and other entities have found that heirs property ownership is one of the primary methods by which African American-owned lands are lost.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the NAACP encourages individuals to develop estate planning including wills that protect the integrity of the property; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the NAACP would urge its State/State-Area Conferences to support changes to partition laws in each state to, a) require the owner seeking sale to offer his/her interest to the owners that want to keep the property in the family; b) require courts weighing division versus sale to consider the interests of all co-tenants as a group and to factor in noneconomic considerations, such as the historic value of the property and the length of time it has been owned by the family; and c) require sales to be done using a real estate broker who markets the property rather than auctioning it on the courthouse steps; and

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, the NAACP support legislation on the state and federal level such as the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, as approved by the Council of State Governments, which provides the protections listed above.