Saved by His Friends and His Trees
Van was at his wit’s end. He was going to have to sell half of his father’s 42-acre on which he was living to pay his mortgage debt.
Luckily, his friends and neighbors saw the “For Sale” sign on the side of the road. One of them was a participant in the Center’s Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program (SFP) and she knew Van had trees. She encouraged Van to call SFP Director Sam Cook, which he did.
“Van and I ended up walking his land together,” Sam said. “Right away, I could see there was enough fiber (trees and tree products) on the land to give him some income so he wouldn’t have to sell his land.” Sam got Van working with a professional forester and, within four months, the logging began.
“After the first check, I knew Sam was for real,” Van says with a smile. After the harvest, he’d made enough money to meet his mortgage payments, to make a profit and to save every inch of his land.
“I’m number one in the forestry program now.” His enthusiasm has infected others. He was the first in his community to get a USDA Farm and Tract number. “The others were afraid but now they see.”
He was also the first to submit a conservation program application to the USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to apply for cost-share to re-forest the land that was cut. “Sam says that if I cut and clean it all the way, then I can get cost-share money to re-plant long leaf pine. I’m also thinking of putting in a fish farm and maybe leasing some of the land for hunting.” Van’s sharp eyes are ablaze with dreams, and now his daughter may return home to help him make them come true.
Family Agreement Takes Time, but It’s Worth It.
Barbara’s grandmother bought the 23.5 acre family farm in 1924 when land was $2.00 an acre. Over the years, there were family reunions, picking cotton and tending the animals. Barbara remembers her grandmother always saying – “I’ve worked too hard to let white people get my farm.” When her grandmother died, the next generation of heirs, Barbara’s mother and her siblings, took over the land and made sure the taxes were paid. However, it remained in the name of Barbara’s grandparents and was still heirs’ property.
When that generation passed away, Barbara, her siblings and numerous cousins realized they had to do something to be sure that their land stayed in the family. Around that time, Barbara’s sister, Lois, saw an ad for the Center in her light bill and she called and made an appointment to talk with the Center’s Attorney Josh Walden. That was in May 2010. Like most heirs’ property owners, she and Barbara had no idea what a long and challenging road they would have to travel to complete their family tree, confirm or retire all rumored documents (wills, deeds, titles, etc.) and finally – to get family agreement to divide the land along heir lines.
There were times when it all seemed too hard. “There is an ebb and flow to family negotiations,” said Walden. “Ultimately, this family overcame disagreement and avoided the pitfalls that often lead to a stalemate and inaction. To their credit, heirs from South Carolina, New York and Utah rallied and stayed the course. It only takes one heir to stop us in our tracks so all the heirs involved were equally responsible for their successful resolution.”
Through a Quiet Title Action, there are now four Masters Deeds recorded that divide up the property. More importantly, Lois has shared the “story” of the land with her children so that they understand how important it is for them to keep it in the family.
God’s Not Making Any More Land
Louis, Sr. did not join his family in the front room when Sam Cook, director of the Center’s Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program (SFP) first came to talk about their forested acres…but, from time to time, he would call out from the back of the house – “Don’t sign anything!”
Today, Louis, Sr. sits front and center in the SFP family meetings. He is an SFP convert and evangelist. With development in high gear in his community, Louis, Sr. now worries about what other, small landowners might do. “We need to help those who don’t know what to do, so they don’t do fly-by-night things.”
Louis, Sr. bought his family home and 39 acres in Berkeley County from his cousin and then 53 acres from his father. His nine children all worked the land growing up. They kept cows, hogs and chickens; grew deer corn, soybeans, cane and sweet potatoes, and tended a family garden. The children remember pulling peanuts from 4AM to long after dark on Saturdays. Hard though it was, they all agree – “It gave us our work ethic…and teamwork ethic.”
In this family of eleven, Mom and Dad were both teachers as are two of their children, another works for Santee Cooper and one for Kapstone; three are registered nurses and two are in the Air Force. Son Louis, II is now the primary caretaker of the property. “The land is ‘home’ for all of us. It’s our common bond. We always know we can come back.”
With the help of a consultant forester, they now have a long term forest management plan with 10-15 and 30-year goals and cost-share reimbursement through the USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) EQIP program to re-plant loblolly pine, and they will continue to lease their land for farming and hunting.
“The program wouldn’t be worth 2-cents without the education,” Cook admits, and Louis, II agrees. The information shared at the SFP seminars has given his family hope that they can develop an economic plan for the future to hold on to their land. “Personally, I want our forest to look like the national forest,” Louis, II says with a smile. “It’s just a matter of execution.”
The family also want to get things in order for the next generation. Have a plan they can follow. Set things up for them. “Land in these times is gold,” they all agree. “God’s not making more land.”
A Father’s Gift Bears Fruit
Ercelle was born one of seven children on the King Plantation off Folly Road in 1914. She picked cotton as a child and thanked the good Lord the day the boweevil put an end to it. After that, her father worked as an independent farmer to buy land for his family. He saved up his nickels and dimes in a little black bag. “I admire him for what he did,” she said. “I know how hard he worked and what he did without.”
In 1926 Ercelle’s mother died and in 1927, her father bought seven acres of farmland – one acre for each of his children – and worked it until the day he died. “He was thinking ahead. He wanted land for his children.”
When Ercelle moved back home from New Jersey where she had raised her own family, she put a mobile home on her acre and looked forward to the day when her daughter would move down to join her. That’s when she found out the land wasn’t hers. It was heirs’ property and all of the heirs owned the seven acres “in common.”
Fortunately, she came into the Center for help. “If it wasn’t for the Center I couldn’t have done anything. They helped me get my parcel deeded to me. Without that, my daughter would never be coming down. It made all the difference in the world.”
Today, at age 98, Ercelle tills a summer and winter garden by hand behind her home; rakes and bags her own leaves and clips her hedges. “I rode a mower until I was 90,” she says proudly. There’s a smell of fresh baking in her tidy, cheerful kitchen. She has made dozens of cookies to take to local nursing homes. She will continue to “do” for others as long as she can, but she mostly wants to settle the rest of her father’s land, which is still heirs’ property. “Tax time is always at-risk time,” she says. She worries that the young people don’t understand what the land means. “I can feel what it meant to my father. That’s why I want to keep it.”
The Catch-22 of Heirs’ Property
Patricia thought she owned an acre of land in Mount Pleasant until she applied for funding for repairs on her home. That’s when she found out that she did not, in fact, own her family land and she couldn’t get any help to fix up her house until she did.
During the one-hour of free, legal “Advice and Counsel” with the Center’s attorney, Patricia learned what had happened. She had, in fact, owned the property with her husband but she had not probated his estate within the ten-year period (required by SC law) after he died, so her land had become heirs’ property
Luckily, there were only three heirs, so Deeds were prepared for each of them and a Petition to Determine Heirs action was filed in the Probate Court for Charleston County. Once the titles were cleared, home repairs could begin.
“I believe the service was great!” said Patricia. “It was quicker than I thought, from the time I came in to the time it went to the Judge.”
No one said it would be easy…
Phyllis finally has the deed to the home she lived in since the 60’s. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
“It’s time consuming. It’s nerve wracking. You lose friends and find family that you never knew you had. People come out of the woodwork,” she said, throwing up her hands.
The property on James Island had been in her family since the late 50’s but her parents didn’t write a will, so the property was suddenly owned by 10 heirs. “I was paying the taxes. It was mine and I wanted to own it on paper,” Phyllis said. With the help of the Center’s service of a “Family Presentation” – all of the heirs came together and aired their differences and finally agreed that Phyllis should own the land.
“Now, I can go out and get some repairs done,” she said, beaming. “I can get a loan because I have proof that I own it.”
Where there’s a will…there’s a worry lifted
Lucille was born in Awendaw and will be 80 this month. She has been living in the same house since 1963. Now widowed with ten children, she wanted to get a will drafted, but she was leery of asking for help. “I was afraid of people taking advantage of my property,” she said. She had heard too many stories of people losing their family land when they sought help with it. “I had to fight hard to survive and hold on to this land with ten children. I didn’t want to lose it.”
At the Center, she had her Last Will and Testament drafted and she feels a lot better. “Thank the Lord I am now able to leave it to them without a worry.”
Lucille believes that the children need to learn about their heritage and the history of their family land. “They need to understand what their families went through to get land decades ago,” she said. “Tell the stories and get help early and you won’t worry.”
A Will is Just a Piece of Paper…Until You Probate the Estate
Helen did not know that the Will that she held in her hand was not valid. It was properly drafted and properly signed and witnessed. In it, her husband stated that he wished to leave everything he owned to her.She did not know that after he died, she was required by law to probate his estate in court – within 10 years of his passing – to make the Will valid.
Luckily, she found out while there was still time left. Helen had called the City of Charleston’s Home Rehabilitation Services to apply for housing repair assistance and found out that she had to probate her husband’s estate in order to qualify. “We referred her to the Center for help as we have with many clients,” said Eddie Bines, Housing Rehabilitation Manager with the City of Charleston Department of Housing and Community Development. “The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation provides a vital service to property owners who do not have clear title to their property by working with the family to get the matter cleared up as quickly as possible. They are a hands-on agency and stick with the family until the property issues are resolved.”
Helen is not alone. Since opening its doors in 2005, the Center has successfully probated 19 cases involving 24 titles estates to help prevent an heirs’ property problem. However, the opposite is also true. One client called the Center two days after the 10-year statutory period for probating the estate had run out. When that happens, the Will might as well have never been written. The estate has become heir’s property.
For Helen and her daughter, it was a happy ending. With the help of the Center, her husband’s estate was probated and her home is being repaired. Helen also drafted her own Will.
The work for Helen falls into the “prevention” bucket of the Center’s work – before heirs’ property has set in. The resolution is much simpler and saves a lot of heartache.
Be sure to have your own Will drafted and REMEMBER to probate the estate of a loved one who has died within 10 years of his or her passing.