Emerging law protects inherited property

When a property owner dies without a will, the real estate passes to his or her heirs as tenants in common. This is known as “heirs’ property.” If one of these tenants wants to sell but the others won’t agree, a tenant can file a partition lawsuit to force a sale of the property in its entirety.

Property advocates say land speculators obtain a share of an heirs’ property for the purpose of forcing a sale and acquiring the entire parcel, often at a fraction of its market value.

The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA) is designed to keep property owners from losing their land. The UPHPA, first introduced in 2011, has since been enacted in 17 states. New York was the most recent, passing a version in December 2019. Six other states and Washington, D.C. are considering legislation.

Under the UPHPA, property must be valued with an appraisal that sets a floor price for sale and specifies a price for which co-tenants can buy out the tenant seeking a partition. Furthermore, property must be placed on the open market as opposed to being sold through a judicial auction.

New York’s law included some modifications, including providing that by requesting a partition by sale, a tenant has consented to the purchase of their interest.

Thomas W. Mitchell, a law scholar with Texas A&M University who drafted the UPHPA, was recently awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant for his work. Mitchell began his work to help disadvantaged families who didn’t have the resources to stop these kinds of land grabs.

Mitchell and other advocates say forced partition sales disproportionately impact Black and Latino communities, due to sizable gaps in putting in place wills and estate plans. According to a piece in The New Yorker, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized forced sales of heirs’ property as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.”

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