Writer: Roger Nielsen
An innovative way to help landowners and local officials quickly identify “heirs properties” that may have clouded titles was developed by Institute of Government faculty and described in a recent technical report.
Heirs properties occur when the owner dies, often without a will, and ownership passes to several heirs. As co-ownership proliferates over time, it can become difficult to ascertain who’s responsible for maintaining and managing the land. Ownership becomes vague and the title is said to be clouded.
Diffuse ownership responsibility can make it difficult to get co-owners’ consent to properly maintain, sell or improve a tract of land. The result can be blight, abandonment and tax delinquency—all contributors economic to stagnation, according to the report, “Identifying Potential Heirs Properties in the Southeastern United States.”
Faculty members Scott Pippin and Shana Jones, with U.S. Forest Service scientist Cassandra Johnson Gaither, described a method to use computer-assisted mass appraisal data to automate the search for heirs properties in the report, published by the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station. A CAMA search bypasses part of the slow, laborious process of doing a manual title search, according to Pippin, the lead author.
“The CAMA search allows us to review all the properties in a county and eliminate the ones we know are not heirs properties. Then, you can start looking for attributes that indicate they could be heirs properties,” he said.
Those attributes include property that hasn’t changed ownership in decades, parcels with absentee owners and tracts with out-of-state billing addresses or indicators like someone’s name followed by “and heirs” or “et al.” Co-owners of heirs properties with clouded titles may find it impossible to sell or develop the land, effectively maintain their property or secure state and federal assistance such as disaster aid, according to Pippin.
“What we’re trying to do is find a more effective way to assess the extent of the problem and the impact heirs properties have at the city and county level,” he said. Identifying heirs properties enables land advocates like Georgia Appleseed to help heirs clarify lines of ownership and regain clear title to return the land to productive use.