What looks to a developer like a good business opportunity looks to some property owners like home. Family. History.
And, unfortunately, it often looks like a legal nightmare that can result in families losing out.
A bill in the state Senate would recognize the unique challenges of heirs' property and increase the odds that its owners can hold on to their land.
The Uniform Partition of Heirs' Property Act, which was introduced a year ago by Sen. Robert Hayes, R-York, would broaden and tailor judges' roles in heirs' property disputes to meet the particular circumstances.
The bill was recently sent to a Senate subcommittee. It deserves approval.
Without the new law, heirs who own property with other family members - often dozens of them - will continue to lose their property because it was passed down without a will.
If even just one heir goes to a judge seeking his share of the property, it can be sold at auction, often well below market price, to provide him that value. That heir might live in another state and never have set foot on the property. The other heirs have the first right of refusal, but often they can't afford to pay for the property, so it is sold.
The nonprofit Center for Heirs' Property Preservation serving six Lowcountry counties, offers help in the way of educating people about heirs' property, free clinics on wills, legal services and land use guidance.
But the law needs to be strengthened to address the problem more effectively.
The bill being considered would allow judges to take into account factors other than money in deciding how heirs get their value out of the property.
A judge could consider if the land can be divided, how much of the property taxes different heirs have paid and even heirs' sentimental attachment to the land.
If a settlement is not reached, the judge can order that it be offered for sale by a real estate agent, not at auction, so that heirs will get a fair-market price.
Unfortunately, a lot of heirs' property has already been sold, and it isn't just heirs who lose. With the disappearance of heirs' property, rural tracts have given way to urban sprawl; the cultural heritage of communities has been lost; and the environment has suffered. Among those properties most affected have been have been Sea Island tracts owned by black families.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, said during the subcommittee meeting, "It's just unfortunate we didn't have this years and years and years ago."
Heirs' property can't be handled like other parcels of land. The Uniform Partition of Heirs' Property Act appreciates that and gives judges the leeway to make decisions that will aid in the preservation of family lands.
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