The existing literature identifies heir property, land held communally by heirs of someone who has died without a will, as a primary cause of land loss among African Americans and a major factor contributing to persistent poverty in the South’s demographically-defined Black Belt. Despite the importance of this form of property, little systematic research has been done to quantify the extent of heir property or the potential wealth tied up in clouded titles. This study documents the presence of more than 1,500 heir property parcels in one Alabama Black Belt county (Macon) and describes the methodological challenges involved in such research. Our analysis identified distinctive characteristics of and significant relationships between a set of key ownership variables (taxpayer location, size and value of land, structural improvements, and municipal incorporation). We argue the need to document the extent and consequences of heir property to spur action by legislators, Extension Systems across the region, and pro-bono attorneys, among others, to address the personal and economic costs associated with this form of insecure ownership.

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