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Fighting Black America’s Fear of Wills

Many people were surprised when news surfaced that actor Chadwick Boseman didn’t have a will when he died of colon cancer, despite knowing his cancer diagnosis years before it claimed his life. The deaths of recording artists Prince and Aretha Franklin also launched brutal interfamilial wars when their time was done. Legal disputes kept Franklin’s family from working out their differences five years after her death because no attorney finalized Franklin’s handwritten documents. This also goes for Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and—according to national trends—probably your mom.


The yawning U.S. wealth gap between Black families and white families reveals Black wealth to be a vulnerable thing that desperately needs preserving. Redlining, exclusionary federal military pay and benefits, and racist banking practices labored for decades to keep African American possessions and resources at or near the national bottom. Black families own fewer things, retain the least savings, and graduate college with the most debilitating deb.


Additionally, what little Black families do own is frequently jeopardized by family matrons' or property owners’ failure to write a will. A senior without an official will (heavy emphasis on “official”) can introduce all kinds of strife to relatives and descendants. Even the most cherished family property can fall into dispute and spark internecine wars between cousins and blood, some lasting ages.


A senior without an official will can introduce all kinds of strife to relatives and descendants.

If sparring family never fully come to an agreement on grandma’s wishes, they might call in attorneys and chancery court judges who may end the fight by pushing the family to sell off valuable timber and mineral rights on the property, or even put the land itself up for sale and then divide the net proceeds from the sale among warring cousins. Nobody is happy in these extreme cases, and family wealth is devastated.


There is hope for relatives who haven’t already broken out into war over a nonexistent will, however, and this month the reach of one helpful program is growing. Last month, Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) and HOPE (Hope Credit Union) agreed to expand MCJ’s Heirs’ Property program courtesy of a $75,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas.


“Heirs property is land that has been passed down from one generation to the next without a will or some legal document proving ownership,” said Andrea Barnes, director of MCJ’s Heirs’ Property program, which provides education and direct legal assistance to help low-wealth Mississippi families get a clear title to their property. “Let’s say a grandmother did die without a will. In the state of Mississippi, if you die without a will, the state will determine who are the heirs, who has the right to step in line and inherit from grandmother.”


The Covid-related death of one woman’s mother last year left no legal means for her to renegotiate payments with the bank. The bank would only do business with the deceased client and had begun foreclosure in her absence. The company was only two days away from the property’s foreclosure sale when MCJ Heirs Property Campaign attorneys opened an estate action on behalf of the deceased mother. It took one restraining order and a preliminary injunction to preserve the home for Thanksgiving.


“If it wasn’t for the MCJ’s Heirs Property program our home would have been sold and I would have been homeless,” said A. Bridges, who prefers not to use her full name. “They are truly amazing. I will forever be grateful to them.”


Not every case is this cut and dry, however. Bigger families have big complications. No family member has control of the land in large heirs property situations, which puts everybody on the same slippery slope. Barnes said the property is vulnerable because two relatives rarely agree on anything, much less five relatives, 10, 50, or hundreds. Plus, it’s often not just mom or dad who owned the property when they died. It’s their siblings and their children who own it, or grandchildren, or even great grandchildren. Some cases can go back decades, but Barnes said her organization can still file suit to determine the proper heir.


This means convincing a judge which people are rightful heirs, of course, and that means constructing a family tree from the ground up. While you and a few other family members may personally know who is whose cousin, twice removed, it takes more than your personal recollection to make a family tree work in court. The state requires assemblers to provide notice of heirs both known and unknown to better determine who stands to inherit, and this often means reaching out to folks who haven’t seen a local family cookout in more than a generation. Relatives get all over the place, and information sometimes must travel across the world to reach a relative nobody’s seen since that “big family blowout in the ‘70s.”


“Secondly, a lot of our clients can’t afford the filing fee to initiate direct legal action,” Barnes said. “Some don’t even know I’m going to have to take legal action if grandma didn’t have a will, just to get the property out of the name of the deceased grandmother and into the name of living heirs.”


Sadly, Barnes and her organization can only do so much if family members are still squabbling over who gets what. Fights like that must play out in a chancery court with an army of expensive lawyers. Barnes and her staff can step in to make things official only after all family members are ready and willing to move to the next step.


“We require families to be in agreement that they want a quick title to the property. Otherwise, we could be in court for a decade. We tell our clients upfront that we’re not going to file suit against another heir.”


An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled MCJ’s Heirs’ Property program Director Andrea Barnes as "Angela" Barnes. We apologize for the mistake.


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