Ask the Expert: Building Upon A Family Legacy, a Q&A About Heirs’ Property with J. Latrice Hill

In this Ask the Expert, J. Latrice Hill answers questions about heirs’ property and how it relates to USDA programs and services. Latrice has served as the Director of Outreach for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) since 2013.

The issue of heirs’ property is also personal for Latrice. “As one of the heirs to some of my family’s land, I definitely understand barriers faced by heirs’ property landowners,” she said.

What is heirs’ property?

Heirs’ property is a legal term that refers to family land inherited without a will or legal documentation of ownership.  The land’s heirs do not own a specific portion or acreage, but they do have an ownership interest based on their relationship to the original landowner.  

What are the challenges to those with heirs’ property?

It has historically been difficult for heirs to benefit from USDA programs because they normally can’t meet the requirements – including proof of ownership or control of land – to get a farm number. We are working to fix that.

Because the heirs need to agree on land-use decisions, such as farming, management of the land can be challenging.

Though heirs’ property issues are not specific to any geographic area, and can affect landowners regardless of demographics, race and social status, many Black farmers, and other groups who have faced historic racism, have heirs’ property. USDA is committed to revising policies to be more equitable and examining barriers to heirs’ property owners is part of that effort.

What is USDA doing to help farmers with heirs’ property?

USDA is committed to removing barriers to access and equalizing access to financing and programming.

The first step towards accessing USDA’s valuable programs and assistance is to register for a farm number. This usually involves a bringing a deed or lease to the local FSA Service Center. Because farmers with heirs’ property may not have a clear or marketable title to the property, USDA offers several new options for them put in place by the 2018 Farm Bill. A list of documents that heirs can provide FSA to establish a farm number can be found at in our heirs’ property factsheet.  

What is the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA)?

Several states have passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA), which helps to protect heirs.  When their relative dies without a will, heirs become tenants, or owners, in common. This means that any of the heirs can force a property sale. In some cases, predatory investors may obtain a share from one heir for the purpose of forcing the sale of the entire property below market value.  When the land is sold below market value, all the heirs lose.  In states that passed the UPHPA, heirs are protected from falling victim to that unethical practice.   

Why would an heir be interested in working with the USDA?

USDA offers an extensive array of programs and assistance, from farm loans to crop insurance, and conservation programs to disaster assistance.  Farmers who want to participate in local program decisions may consider serving on their local FSA county committee, including new county committees now focused on urban agriculture.

The 2018 Farm Bill also authorized the Heirs' Property Relending Program. The relending program will provide funds to eligible lenders to resolve ownership and succession issues on farmland with multiple owners. The lenders will give loans to qualified individuals to resolve these ownership issues. USDA is still in the process of drafting this regulation. More information will be posted on the Heirs’ Property webpage when it becomes available.

What advice would you give to heirs who are new to USDA and FSA programs?

To help answer questions and get you started, each FSA office and State has an assigned outreach coordinator and each state has an assigned USDA beginning farmer and rancher coordinator.  If you’re new to USDA and not familiar with all of the programs available, I encourage you to get in touch with your local service center and discover how FSA can support the legacy of your family’s land.

Kathryn Fidler is a public affairs specialist for USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation Business Center.