January 29, 2024 — Report

Increasing home costs, economic crises, and persistent structural barriers to fair housing have each contributed to a widening homeownership gap between white and Black households. As a result, advocates and policymakers have devoted considerable attention to increasing access to homeownership for first time homebuyers of color. Comparatively less attention, however, has been paid to reducing the racial wealth gap by slowing the rate of home loss, and to one significant driver of land loss in communities of color: heirs property.

This report highlights and evaluates the efficacy of various laws and policies aimed at helping owners of heirs property. We divide those legal interventions into three sections: laws aimed at preventing immediate land loss; laws aimed at resolving heirs property and clarifying ownership status; and laws aimed at preventing heirs property from occurring in the future. Addressing each of these three areas is essential to stem the tide of home loss and equity theft related to heirs property status.

“Heirs property” describes a form of property ownership that arises when several heirs inherit a home but have not completed the probate process to clarify title. Over successive generations of unclear title, this can lead to dozens of heirs with an increasingly fractional ownership interest in a home. Without a registered deed or legal proof of ownership, heirs property owners are limited in their ability to manage their home. 

Heirs property is disproportionately experienced in communities of color. Due to both historical abuses from and present day lack of access to the legal system, Black Americans are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to have a will. Consequently, some studies estimate that more than half the real property owned by Black Americans is owned as heirs property. 

Heirs property status threatens both the physical and financial security of families. Unable to prove legal title, heirs property owners are often excluded from property tax relief programs, potentially increasing their tax bill by thousands of dollars. They may be ineligible for disaster relief funds, hampering their ability to recover from catastrophic weather events. Unclear title may also bar heirs property owners from obtaining homeowners insurance or receiving home repair grants and loans. This form of property ownership therefore renders residents housing-insecure, threatening them with displacement and their neighborhoods with blight.

Together, fractured ownership and exclusionary policies prevent many families from enjoying the full physical and financial security promised by homeownership. Protecting heirs property owners from losing their homes, while also increasing avenues for families to obtain clear title, is an essential aspect of the fight to increase housing and economic security, protect marginalized communities, and reduce the racial wealth gap through homeownership preservation.

This report highlights a wide range of laws and policies adopted in jurisdictions across the 

Country and provides recommendations for states to tackle home loss by either protecting, resolving, or preventing heirs property:

Protect heirs property from loss 

  • Expanding heirs property owners’ access to property tax relief programs
  • Recognizing heirs as successors in interest for mortgage loans
  • Ensuring heirs are eligible for disaster relief programs
  • Passing the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act
  • Passing Anti-Home Equity Theft laws to protect heirs from predatory investors 

Resolve heirs property 

  • Promoting uniform acceptance of heirship affidavits
  • Allowing occupant-heirs to consolidate ownership via adverse possession
  • Permitting heirs to purchase the ownership interest of absentee heirs via a forced sale 

Prevent heirs property

  • Authorizing transfer on death deeds (TODDs) via statute or promoting utilization of enhanced life estate deeds
  • Facilitating usage of living trusts
  • Expanding access to simplified probate processes 

In jurisdictions with these policies in place, legal practitioners should utilize them to protect heirs property owners. In places where these policies are not in place, advocates and policymakers should promote their adoption to stem home loss in marginalized communities.