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Prevent forced sales, and keep land in the family with a customized estate plan
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Prevent forced sales, and keep land in the family with a customized estate plan

ETTRICK—Six sisters who owned two land tracts on the Northern Neck decided to harvest timber on one site to fund improvements at the homesite. Their grandfather’s land had been owned by the family since 1893.

But when the sisters were ready to arrange the timber harvest and sale, they learned a cousin living states away had already sold it.

“We pulled up, and there was no timber,” said Karen Snape, a Virginia Cooperative Extension forestry agent. “It was clear-cut a few years prior, and they didn’t know about it. The logger bought the timber from a cousin, who was paying the property taxes.”

Because the grandfather had no estate plan, the land had passed informally to generations of heirs. Those “tenants in common” are co-owners of the property and can bring court action to divide or sell it through state partition law.

The person paying the taxes does not have any more legal right to the land than their co-heirs, Snape noted. But partition law allows heirs to divide land equitably to each fractional interest. A distant relative can force a sale without co-heirs’ agreement, even if family members are still living onsite.

The Virginia State University College of Agriculture and Small Farm Outreach Program partnered with VCE to present stories of generational land loss, and solutions to preserve family land at a recent seminar held at Randolph Farm.

Participants also learned how developers exploited the law before the 2020 passage of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act. Developers would convince a single heir to sell their small title interest or fractional share and then use the courts to forcibly sell the whole property.

“But there are ways to consolidate ownership, which can be a long and difficult process,” Snape said.

Ebonie Alexander, executive director of Black Family Land Trust Inc., said land is an asset, “and it should be a performing asset. If you have heir’s property, then it can’t perform the way you need it to.”

Black Americans have particularly been affected by partition law, losing 98% of family land that once totaled 15 million acres in the 1920s.

“They can ride down any road their family grew up on and say—we used to own that, my uncle owned that,” Alexander continued. “This access to information is designed to stem land loss and put us on a different projection where we are buying land again.”

Register now for any of the five additional free seminars held statewide.

Virginia Farm Bureau estate planning specialists can assist landowners in creating trusts and other holdings to keep land a performing asset for generations to come. 

Media: Contact Alexander at 919-683-5263 or Snape at 540-231-6494.

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