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Keeping Land in the Family

Family on ranch at sunset, silhouette

A proposal in North Carolina could follow similar work in nearly two dozen other states to better protect the rights of landowners -- particularly low-income and people of color – so they can maintain ownership that has been in their family for generations.

The legislation could address a complicated, confusing and exhausting ordeal for some families whose property ownership was never specifically addressed in a will for each relative. Some families have been forced to leave their land; two brothers in North Carolina got sent to prison for refusing to vacate.

Here is one family’s plight as reported by ProPublica in 2019:

“In the spring of 2011, the brother Melvis Davis and Licurtis Reels were the talk of Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. Some people said that the brothers were righteous; others thought that they had lost their minds. That March, Melvin and Licurtis stood in court and refused to leave the land that they had lived on all their lives, a portion of which had, without their knowledge or consent, been sold to developers years before.”

The brothers’ great-grandfather farmed the land a century before and it had remained in the care of relatives for the decades since. Again, there was no will that laid out ownership stakes for the dozens of family members who claimed rights to the property. And a distant relative of the brothers sold the land to developers. That began the years-long struggle for the brothers.

A solution for a conflict like this could be the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which provides protection and legal clarity for the heirs of landowners.

ABC News updated the plight of the North Carolina brothers in this report and cited a legal expert who explained why the problem will persist without legal changes.

“In North Carolina, if a person dies without a legal will, or without conveying their property to a beneficiary, all their heirs will own an equal percentage of the property becoming co-tenants, says Jane Sternecky, the Uniform Law Commission legislative counsel responsible for enactment of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, told ABC News. If a co-tenant or a third-party files a partition of action in the court, a court could potentially determine how property is partitioned, making more families vulnerable to this issue, she said.”

RELATED: The story of the brothers is chronicled in a new Amazon Prime Video documentary, “Silver Dollar Road.” Watch the trailer here.


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