Bucksport ‘heir property’ owners face issues with getting flood damaged homes fixed

Published: Apr. 28, 2021 at 4:57 AM EDT
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - Some flood victims in Bucksport are facing an unusual hurdle to get help to repair their homes.

They live in an “heir property,” which means the family member who originally owned the property died without a will.

Many homes in Bucksport are passed down from generation to generation but now this family history is causing major headaches for those who want to get their flood damaged homes repaired.

Loved ones have been rightfully living on the property for years and paying taxes, but their names are not on the deed, which disqualifies them from applying for the grant funds.

The federal and state government requires all ownership of the property, referred to as clear title of the property, in order for people to be eligible for the funding. This is something heir property families don’t have access to because there was no will.

Estelle Robinson and Jannett Aklin are sisters. They have siblings living at a home that’s considered heir property because it was passed down to the family without a will.

Robinson and Aklin say their siblings are unable to get the type of help they need to fix flood damages because the property isn’t in their names.

“They been having so much problems, it’s unbelievable,” Robinson said. “Because when the water comes, they have to get out of their homes. Living in an heir, can’t seem to get anyone to fix damages without paying a leg and arm.”

County and community leaders hosted a forum Tuesday night at the James R. Frazier Community Center to provide guidance to families trying to overcome those challenges.

“Bucksport unfortunately has a very severe problem with heiress property,” said Horry County Councilman Orton Bellamy. “It goes back four, five generations to the 1920s. For example, a husband and wife scenario, they pass away, the property has never been probated. It’s very important families in the Bucksport community pursue clear title to the property. What’s important now is to go through the appropriate process because this could easily get worse. You start with three or four people in a family and it could very easily extend to 20-30 people who have interest in maybe 1-2 acres of land.”

The forum event started off with discussions about the Horry County Community Development Block Grant Program [CDBG]. This allowed residents to understand what type of grant funds are available and what qualifications they must meet to apply.

Although many people who attended the event possibly qualified for grants, some are unable to apply. This is because they’re considered an heir property and there’s no clear title with their name establishing them as the rightful owner.

South Carolina Legal Services attorney Jon Ozolins explained to residents the process of getting a clear title isn’t easy or quick. He also advises families to consult with a licensed attorney about these decisions.

He says land/property becomes an heir under these four circumstances:

  • The owner of the property dies without a will
  • The owner had an ‘oral will’ which is not valid.
  • The will isn’t probated within ten years of death
  • The will leaves the property to several devisees

Ozolins said the best case scenario for families trying to get a clear title is to locate all heirs for the property and try to come to an agreement about what to do with the property. From there, he says families can make a decision as to what to do next:

  • Do nothing and hope for the best
  • Divide up the land among the heirs
  • Sell the land and split the money

He noted it’s best if all of the heirs are in agreement. If everyone is not in agreement, court action to clarify ownership may be the next option.

Ozolins said you will also need a ‘family tree’ listing all the heirs and possible heirs of the owner named on the deed.

Bellamy is encouraging families to start looking through their documents now so they can determine all possible heirs.

“Starting with the Bible,” Bellamy said. “[It’s historical known] in the African-American community, we recorded deaths and births in the Bible. Another way is family obituaries to identify the family tree; that information is very important.”

Ozolins also shared reasons as to why heir properties could bring additional challenges for families:

  • The higher the number of heirs, the lower the ownership percentage for the property gets
  • No matter how small the interest, each heir has rights
  • The property cannot be sold or borrowed against without agreement by all heirs, except by filing a lawsuit
  • Land developers could buy an heir’s interest, then force the other heirs to sell

Only time will tell what type of changes will take place for families who attended the event, but they’re hopeful the information will help their loved ones overcome these hurdles.

“It could help,” Aklin said. “But it’s heirs property. It’s so many people that you have to go through.”

Ozolins said the best course of action for all families is to document everything by writing a will that clearly establishes who’s entitled to your property.

Association for the Betterment of Bucksport has been providing information and resources on it’s Facebook page, notifying Bucksport residents about forums and events to help them address the heir property.

Another event will tentatively be taking place on May 11. You’re encouraged to follow the Bucksport page for additional updates.

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