Tucked in the $867 billion farm bill approved by Congress this week is a provision meant to help owners of heirs' property obtain farm loans, tap in to federal programs and get assistance in resolving land ownership issues.
Advocates have called the provisions co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., "a watershed moment" and "a game changer" for owners of heirs' property, who historically have been excluded from federal programs that assist farmers and foresters.
Heirs' property is common among black families in South Carolina and fraught with peril. It is land that's been handed down through a family without a will, resulting in property with multiple part-owners but no clear record of ownership.
As The Post and Courier detailed in a special report Dec. 5, the legally unclear ownership of heirs' property puts the owners at financial risk of court-ordered auctions and excludes them from many government programs that other property owners can access, such as farm loans.
Heirs' property ownership issues have long been a roadblock for families hoping to build wealth through agriculture.
The farm bill provisions Scott co-sponsored with Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., lay out rules to allow heirs' property owners to obtain a "farm number" required for access to federal programs such as farm loans, crop insurance and disaster aid.
In addition, under certain conditions, nonprofit groups could tap federal loan funds to help families "resolve ownership and succession on farmland that has multiple owners."
Add it all up, and heirs' property owners could get more help resolving land title issues and participate in agriculture in ways that other land owners have long been able to.
The rules include streamlined provisions that apply in states — including South Carolina and Alabama — that have adopted versions of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act. The act strengthens the rights of heirs' property owners if a partial owner of the land wants their share, something that commonly results in what's called a partition sale, in which heirs often lose their entire property because money is easier to divide among dozens of people than land.
“Heirs’ property has been a problematic form of ownership for generations," said Thomas Mitchell, law professor and co-director of the Program in Real Estate and Community Development Law at Texas A&M University. Mitchell was principle drafter of the Uniform Partition Act. He said the Senate farm bill provisions are another important step forward.
“Within the USDA (Department of Agriculture), if you’re going to participate in any number of programs, you need to have clear title," he said. “It’s incredibly significant that the Senate farm bill, and hopefully the House bill today, will provide an alternative route for heirs’ property owners to participate in these programs."
"That’s a game changer," Mitchell said. The House approved the farm bill after Mitchell spoke with The Post and Courier.
In Charleston, the nonprofit Center for Heirs' Property Preservation expressed cautious optimism about the impact of the legislation.
"At this very early stage, however, it is unclear how some of these mechanisms will functionally and, practically, work for landowners dealing with heirs' property issues," said Director of Legal Services Josh Walden.
Scott was unavailable for comment Wednesday. In a previous statement about the provisions, he said the rule changes should "ensure that heirs' property owners have access to critical support programs offered by USDA, which will help countless farmers and ranchers across South Carolina and the nation succeed."