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Appalachian Heirs' Property Coalition

Point of Contact:

Central Appalachia has extremely high rates of heirs’ property (land that has passed either without a will to multiple descendants or with a will to children in undivided interests, who become “tenants in common” of the property). Such patterns of clouded title can dramatically affect economic well being. Families can become vulnerable to land loss. It decreases intergenerational transfer of wealth and creates barriers to credit, investment, and legal and government services. When whole communities have high levels of land insecurity, they are vulnerable to blight and have trouble seizing new economic opportunities. Tangled, insecure, and inequitable land ownership patterns create major barriers to economic diversification, innovation, and prosperity in the region. 


On the other hand, heirs’ property can also carry benefits. Shared property, no matter how tangled the title, can carry deep emotional and cultural meanings that connect extended families to the land and intergenerational heritage. We seek balanced and affordable solutions to these complex challenges, with particular concern for the most underserved and low income communities.


What is Heirs' Property?

Heirs property refers to real estate that is inherited by multiple heirs through intestate succession (no valid will). When the original owner passes away, their heirs receive fractional interests in the property's title, making them co-tenants with one another. This kind of title is called a "clouded title," in contrast to a "clear title" where ownership is clearly defined.  Unfortunately, heirs' property is one of the most precarious and untenable forms of land ownership in the United States because its title is clouded. Ultimately, it creates an opportunity for outside parties to purchase a fraction of the title and leverage the fractional ownership to dispossess the family of the entire property. The clouded title attached to the heirs' property also severely limits what the heirs can do with their land. Heirs’ property cannot be leveraged to procure a loan/mortgage. It is also not eligible for most federal / state grant or cost-sharing programs. Moreover, the clouded status of the title decreases the overall value of the land and restricts it from being used as commercially productive land. 

Introducing the Appalachian Heirs' Property Coalition

Scholars and community organizers in the South and Appalachia have identified heirs' property as a major root cause of persistent poverty. To amplify the economic power of locally-owned assets and encourage community-based economic development, LiKEN is organizing a coalition to directly assist owners of heirs' property in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The Appalachian Heirs' Property Coalition (AHPC) is comprised of legal service providers, community organizers, and natural resource professionals trained in agroforestry practices for Central Appalachia's mixed mesophytic forest. United under the umbrella of the AHPC, LiKEN can better coordinate with service providers to make the title clearing process affordable (or even free) and connect heirs with the necessary services and resources. The objective of the AHPC is to overcome the barriers to improved livelihoods and community development by way of offering affordable title clearing, estate planning and education, and forest management services. Our model comes from the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation (CHPP), a nonprofit founded in 2002 in South Carolina, that has been nationally preeminent in developing successful methods for community-based solutions to HP problems.

Title Clearing

If the heirs agree to initiate the process of title clearing, LiKEN will connect them (or the heirs’ representative) with title abstractors and legal service providers who can perform the research and legal actions demanded by the process. When all of the necessary requirements are met (chain of deed, mapping of fractional interests, consensus among heirs, etc.), the AHPC attorney(s) will transfer the fractional interests in the property into equivalent fractional interests in a trust/LLC and put ownership of the property under the ownership of the trust/LLC. This entire process will be carefully managed by AHPC community engagement coordinator(s) in a manner that builds and maintains trust between the heirs and the AHPC.

Education & Wills Clinics

Education is a key component of the AHPC. LiKEN has partnered with Kentucky State University and the University of Kentucky for "Navigating Kentucky's Heirs' Property," their train-the-trainer seminars on heirs' property for cooperative extension agents and county officials all over Kentucky. LiKEN is collaborating with participating Cooperative Extension Service offices in Eastern Kentucky to organize free Will-Writing Clinics and Heirs' Property Information Sessions. Wills clinic participants are be able to sit down with a volunteer attorney and collaboratively write a simple will for free. These clinics aim to make estate planning more accessible to Eastern Kentucky residents, regardless of their financial situation, and prevent the creation and further fractionalization of heirs' property. All Wills Clinics & Heirs' Property Information Sessions are held at the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service office in each county. Unless otherwise noted, the clinics run from 9:30 AM to 2:30 PM. Here is the schedule for our 2024 spring, summer, and fall wills clinics seminars (Updated: 6/6/2024):

3/1/2024 - Harlan County

5/8/2024 - Martin County

6/13/2024 - Leslie County

8/​8/2024 - Breathitt County

9/17/2024 - Harlan County (1:30 PM - 6:30 PM)

10/9/2024 - Perry County

11/13/2024 - Floyd County

Agroforestry & Ecological Restoration

Agroforestry is another key component of the AHPC. While LiKEN's community engagement coordinators work with families to clear their title, they will also assist them in drafting a socioecological site description and a ecoforestry management plan and procuring a USDA Farm Number. The ecoforestry management plan will focus on agroforestry practices and the development of non-timber products such as herbs (black cohosh, ginseng, goldenseal, etc.), maple syrup, and culinary mushrooms. The plan can also include ecological restoration and flood mitigation components to increase the carbon sequestration capacity, biodiversity, and climate resilience of the property. After the family has received a clear title, LiKEN will connect them with natural resource professionals from within the AHPC and federal/state agencies that can provide the money and technical assistance needed to implement the ecoforestry management plan. Importantly, the AHPC will not help landowners who primarily wish to utilize their land for timber harvesting. 

Research and Policy Advocacy

Concurrent with AHPC's title clearing, education, and agroforestry services, the AHPC is also conducting research to directly inform state policymakers and federal agencies. While heirs' property is a national problem, the details and effects of heirs' property is different from region to region and state to state. That is to say that the landscape of property ownership in Eastern Kentucky looks different than Georgia or South Carolina or any other place. If the state legislators draft policies that could affect heirs' property owners in Eastern Kentucky, we want to make sure that those legislators have in-depth knowledge about how heirs' property functions in Eastern Kentucky and what challenges heirs' property owners face in the region. LiKEN recognizes that there is a gap between legislators in Frankfort and the residents of Eastern Kentucky. We want to bridge that gap by learning directly from heirs' property owners and hearing what they think would be best for their communities. Nobody knows the mountains like those who live in the mountains. 

So far, we have published one report on heirs' property, "Examining the Efficacy of the Uniform Partition of Heirs' Property Act in Georgia, Alabama, and Kentucky: A Proof of Concept Investigation." LiKEN also has another report that extensively references heirs' property, titled "Where Credit is Due Examining USDA Finance, the Farm Credit System, and Barriers to Local Wealth and Sustainability." Both reports can be downloaded on our Resource page.

 

We are currently working on another report, titled "Comparative Effects of Heirs’ Property Ownership on Local Understandings of Wealth and Prosperity between Central Appalachia and the Deep South." This report is based on a study of the experiences and perceptions of heirs' property owners, community leaders, and other interested community members in selected Appalachian counties in Eastern Kentucky. Its purpose is to gather stories and assessments of community wealth among heirs' property owners, with the understanding that this ethnographic data can form the basis of popular education and community support for a region strongly affected by heirs' property ownership. Interviews with community leaders that have knowledge and experience with heirs' property issues, allow us to better understand the impact of heirs’ property ownership on overall economic development in these counties.

Getting Involved

If you own heirs' property in Eastern Kentucky and are interested in our services or would like to speak with us about your experiences with the property, please email Kevin Slovinsky at kslovinsky@likenknowledge.org or call (619) 964-0840.

Stylized tree with leaves and roots surrounded by a border of aerial view of a person's head and arm

Examining the Efficacy of the Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act
in Georgia, Alabama, and Kentucky: A Proof of Concept Investigation

Stylized tree with leaves and roots surrounded by a border of aerial view of a person's head and arm

Where Credit is Due

Heirs’ Property in Eastern Kentucky:
Services & Myth Busting (PowerPoint Slides)

This PowerPoint slideshow is shown during our Free Will-Writing Clinic and Heirs' Property Info Sessions and is designed to clear up misconceptions about heirs' property and provide attendees with straightforward answers to their most common questions.

Farmland Access Legal Toolkit Logo

Farmland Access Legal Toolkit

An interactive guide that helps farmers and landowners affordably access, transfer, and conserve farmland. Includes an heirs' property fact sheet specific to KY.

Family-Land and Love Amidst Extraction: Perspectives on Heirs' Property in Eastern Kentucky (PowerPoint Slides)

This report engages Objective Two of a larger collaborative project led by the Southern Rural Development Center/Mississippi State University in collaboration with Cassandra Johnson Gaither (Southern Research Office, Research Social Scientist, US Forest Service), Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, Dr. Cassandra Gaither Johnson led the team focusing on Objective Two. It was funded by the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, through a subaward from the US Forest Service to LiKEN. The objective of this study is to determine how heirs’ property owners (HPOs) and their communities understand their own personal and communal wealth and their perceptions of opportunities and barriers to building wealth in general, and the impact of heirs’ property in particular.

[Presentation Video] Navigating Kentucky's Heirs' Property

Kevin presented a seminar on heirs' property for University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University cooperative extension officers in Franklin County in spring 2024. This seminar was one of eight “Navigating Kentucky’s Heirs’ Property” seminars funded by Alcorn State University. Participating cooperative extension agents are eligible to apply for a mini-grant offered by Kentucky State University to organize a community-level information session. Kevin has been working with participating agents in eastern Kentucky to utilize the mini-grant to hold “Free Will-Writing Clinic and Heirs’ Property Information Sessions.”

White woman and man sitting on couch talking

[Video] Clearing Our Titles - Appalachian Heirs' Property: Shepherd Family Testimonial

Charlie and Della Shepherd are residents of Letcher County -- a historically coal-producing county in southeastern Kentucky -- and their property used to be heirs' property. Over 40 years, Della purchased the fractional interests owned by her family members until she owned 100% of her property. Her husband, Charlie, grew up on heirs' property but his father bought out the interests of his co-tenants, like Della, and so Charlie inherited his father's property with a clear title.

[Presentation Video] Dimensions of Political Ecology 2024

A presentation given by Kevin Slovinsky, Director of Land & Revenues, at the 2024 Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference in Lexington, Ky. The presentation explained what heirs' property is, how it effects landowners and communities in eastern KY, and how the Appalachian Heirs' Property Coalition seeks to address it. Crossing over from analytical research to a vision of fostering economic justice in Central Appalachia, the presentation’s conclusion sketches out an organizing strategy that positions heirs’ property as the portal through which communities can build a kinship-based cooperative economy that can challenge the existing hegemonic extractive land regime in Central Appalachia.

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