Estate Planning is a Family Affair

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Targeted Outreach to Address Heirs’ Property Issues in Rural Georgia

It’s was shaping up to be an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in May. It was barely 9:00 am but you could tell it would be a scorcher of a day. But for several families in Southeast Georgia, the promise of sweltering temperatures wasn’t going to keep them away from a family affair. It was time to get their estates in order.

Ranging in age and family history, the participants all had one thing in common. They needed a will. Some traveled more than an hour to attend the Free Will Clinic in the small rural community of Cobbtown, Georgia on May 18, 2019. Hosted at H.K. Farm and sponsored by Square O Consulting, the clinic’s primary goal was to help rural landowners secure their family’s land and property in hopes of avoiding heirs’ property issues for future generations.Historically, black families have lost land at a disproportionate rate to other groups because of an inability to prove clear title to their land.

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Why is clear title important? In the decades following the civil war, freed slaves and their descendants accumulated roughly 15 million acres across the United States, most of it in the South. As of 1920, there were 925,000 black-owned farms-representing about 14% of all farms in the U.S.

By 1975, that land ownership had almost disappeared, with just 45,000 black-owned farms. It’s estimated that African Americans only make up 1% of the nation’s rural landowners (www.thenation.com).

While systemic discrimination has been named the main culprit of this land loss, heirs’ property is a lesser known reason. Because as many as 81% of these early landowners did not draft wills, their descendants inherited land without clear title.

We don’t have much now but we still want a will.
— Danise Smith
The Smith Family pose for a photo after drafting a will with  The Ruffin Firm  during the Cobbtown, Ga Will Clinic.

The Smith Family pose for a photo after drafting a will with The Ruffin Firm during the Cobbtown, Ga Will Clinic.

Without a clear title, heirs’-property owners are limited in what they can do with their land. It’s harder to apply for housing aid, federal assistance and loans. Having knowledge of these issues caused by a lack of proper estate planning, Square O Consulting and Camelia Ruffin of The Ruffin Firm have partnered to facilitate a series of clinics offering free wills in rural areas. In Cobbtown, 10 families successfully drafted wills.

Some drove several miles to get their estate planning documents drafted. In some cases, the participants owned thousands of acres in multiple counties and realized they needed to get a plan in place to protect their property.

Other families included the Smiths who recently wed and are a young, blended family. Danise Smith said, “We don’t have much now but we still want a will.”

While each story is different, the necessity is the same. Planning now for future generations is a family affair that shouldn’t be ignored.

Heirs’ property issues can be avoided through targeted outreach and access to legal resources. This access can be an effective catalyst to change the troubling trend of black land loss.