How Heirs’ Property is Affecting Blight in Macon

A vacant home in Pleasant Hill exemplifies the persistent problem of blight in Macon neighborhoods.
A vacant home in Pleasant Hill exemplifies the persistent problem of blight in Macon neighborhoods.
Eliza Moore

When Macon neighborhood streets are marred by overgrown lawns, boarded up windows and vacant properties, the owners can be the easiest to blame for not taking better care of their homes. However, sometimes a house doesn’t have one owner, instead, ownership is divided among dozens of descendents going back generations.

Veronica McClendon, managing attorney for McClendon Law and Consulting, deals with properties that date back to the 1950’s. 

“I have one case where the original owner of a property died in 1950 and had more than 10 heirs. So those ten people have had their own kids, and now we’re dealing with potentially hundreds of people for one piece of property,” she said.

This is possible through an obscure law called heirs’ property law. Heirs’ property refers to property passed down through generations without one legally designated owner. This results in ownership being divided among all living descendents. The heirs are called “tenants in common,” which means that each heir is legally responsible for taxes and other property-related expenses and each heir must agree to any major decisions about the property.

According to McClendon, there’s a lack of education about heirs’ property and the issues it can cause. After someone in their family dies, most people don’t know where to start.

“Sometimes, something will happen that will trigger them realizing they need to start the legal process, like when they attempt to repair something on the house or talk to the mortgage lender, and they need to show proof of ownership. But if nothing happens, then the family just continues living in the house,” McClendon said.

When generations remain in a home without having a deed that establishes one clear owner, more and more heirs will be added to the title, which is called a “clouded title,” making it incredibly difficult to track down all the heirs later down the line. 

McClendon said clouded titles often go unnoticed for decades, resulting in generational poverty. Clouded titles prevent families from being able to qualify for loans and other government programs that would provide financial support and property maintenance because lenders require a clear title and proof of ownership. 

According to J.T. Ricketson, director of code enforcement in Macon, heirs’ property is a significant contributing factor to the growing problem of blight in Macon’s neighborhoods. 

“Some of these folks didn’t have a will, so you have either children or grandchildren or siblings that are in disagreement of what should happen to their property, and while they are fighting it out through the attorneys and the court system, the house just continues to deteriorate,” Ricketson said.

According to the Georgia Heirs Property Law Center, anywhere between 11% and 25% of properties in Georgia are heirs properties. 

Probate is the legal process of transferring ownership from the deceased person through the court system. For the most difficult cases, it can take several years to clear the title through this process. 

“Lawyers have to reach out to each owner, which can be difficult to track down, and even if this proves impossible, they must show the court that action was taken to make contact with each individual involved,” McClendon said.

Even if the probate system is successful and the heirs are contacted, this does not mean they will be willing or able to care for the property themselves. 

“Even if somebody is willed this or they inherited that, they’re struggling themselves, so they’re certainly not going to come to another state and start trying to deal with a house in another area,” Ricketson said. 

According to McClendon, attitudes towards homeownership responsibilities can also affect blight. If you buy a home and sign all the legal documents, you are more likely to invest in its upkeep and feel a sense of responsibility. If you are just living in a home, you may not feel that same sense of responsibility, and may be more willing to let your house fall into disrepair. 

Amy Griffith Dever is the executive director of Middle Georgia Justice, a nonprofit that takes on heirs property and probate cases. Dever calls blighted property a “real estate cancer.”

“I think that people need to understand how much value is lost. I mean, it’s a tremendous loss to a neighborhood every time a house goes under that’s dilapidated or falling apart,” Dever said. “It is not just the people who own the property’s problem. It is a community problem.”

According to the Georgia Heirs Property Law Center, heirs’ property represents $47 billion in “frozen equity” in the state of Georgia.

“There are billions of dollars of lost generational wealth because of the lack of appropriate estate planning that allows property to be passed on and subsequent family members to get that income,” Dever said.

McClendon said heirs property disproportionately affects marginalized communities, partly for financial reasons. 

“Hiring a lawyer to explain the probate process to you and to walk you through the process, that’s going to cost money, and a lot of people just don’t have money to pay a lawyer like that,” she said.

According to McClendon, it’s important to educate people on the importance of doing probate and estate planning to stop the cycle of heirs’ property.

The first step, McClendon said, is to contact a lawyer who can help the family navigate probate. If that is not financially feasible, or if it is a very straightforward case, there are also resources online that can help guide you through the legal process.

“So prevention is, creating a will or a trust where you’re very clear about who will get the property that you’re leaving behind. And, if you talk with the lawyer who has expertise in this, they can advise you on options that will help you to leave something to your children or your loved ones in a way that does not create heirs’ property,” she said.

Dever said that many nonprofits won’t take on cases if family members cannot create an accurate and detailed family tree with contact information for each heir.

“I think that the best advice is, you know, whatever you’ve got to do, don’t wait for generations to do it,” Dever said. “Before someone passes away, if you know they own property, go ahead and get a copy of the deed.” 

Find more resources for navigating probate at the Georgia Heirs’ Property Law Center at [email protected] and Middle Georgia Justice at [email protected].

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