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In her 17 years as CEO of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation®, Dr. Jennie Stephens has made a career of righting wrongs, specifically related to land title issues among Black and other historically underserved communities in the American South.
“I have a strong justice bent. I always want to fix things,” says Dr. Stephens. “Helping people help themselves is my motto. That’s who I am.”
Heirs’ property is defined as land passed down through family generations without a written will. This was not uncommon in areas where, due to segregation or poverty, access to legal aid and estate planning was often nonexistent. Without valid documentation, property may now be owned jointly by multiple heirs. This makes the property difficult to manage because it limits a landowner’s ability to demonstrate property rights and get a mortgage or conservation funding—and can even lead to a loss of the property itself.
The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation® aims to protect such property by establishing documented legal ownership and promoting sustainable use of the land moving forward—ensuring it will be of economic benefit to future generations. Since its establishment in 2005, the center has helped resolve 330 titles for more than 216 people with land valued at $21 million.
Last year alone, the nonprofit provided advice and counsel to more than 600 heirs’ property owners. Not all those families signed on to the project, but they learned what heirs’ property is; what their rights are; and what they must do to protect their land. “We’re helping families reclaim what they should already have,” says Dr. Stephens. “Education is the greatest service we provide. People don’t know what they don’t know.”
Dr. Stephens sees land as a vital part of social and cultural identities—and a valuable asset to facilitate growth. It’s central to conserving natural resources and building inclusive, resilient, and sustainable societies. Any loss of land goes beyond deforestation or degradation; it’s a tremendous loss of history and culture too.
Legally establishing rights to heirs’ property is a multi-step process. First, landowners must develop an up-to-date family tree in order to begin the legal process. The family tree is necessary to conduct a thorough title search, which is used to help the family and the court confirm ownership interests. Descendants may be a single person, a few siblings, or dozens of distantly related family members who have never met. This group of owner heirs may also include folks who married into the family and/or who have inherited property and in no way are blood heirs to the original owner. For the center to move forward with a case, family members must eventually reach 100% agreement on all matters pertaining to working with the center and heirship and agree on a plan to use the land moving forward. With many interests at play, it can be a challenging prospect.
“My advice is to keep your focus on the ancestors who made this possible instead of ‘Where’s mine?’” says Dr. Stephens. In the American South, many of these ancestors were formerly enslaved people or their descendants. They struggled to gain and keep land in a country where their rights—property and otherwise—were not recognized and often violently opposed. “The thing that amazes me about my job is that folks who would be considered uneducated today held on to this land for generations,” she says.
The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation® began as a 501(c)(3) in South Carolina but has now spread to other states. It has grown substantially, from five employees in 2013 to 35 people today, with 50 staffers expected by the end of the year. This includes community liaisons who meet with local leaders and families to increase their awareness about heirs' property, as well as lawyers and foresters to help establish ownership and sustainably manage land, respectively.
In 2021, with support from WWF and Kimberly-Clark, the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation® and the Mississippi Center for Justice launched the Mobile Basin Heirs’ Property Support Initiative to help families in the Mobile Basin of Mississippi protect and keep their forestland. The two-year pilot combines legal services, information, and access to financial and forestry resources to help resolve land title issues and build generational wealth. This initiative will also serve as a model to replicate in other states, including Alabama.
Establishing legal ownership from start to finish often takes several years, but Dr. Stephens and her colleagues won’t be discouraged. “What was hidden is now out in the open,” says Dr. Stephens. “Folks now see the value of our work and how many families are impacted by it.”