Addressing the Challenges of Heirs' Property – Fall Break 2011 Wills Trip

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Volunteer Attorney Bettina Roberts Flood advises student Minisha Patel

"Heirs' property" is a term for land that is owned by two or more people, where those owners have inherited their shares of the property. As is often the case in excluded communities, with limited access to the legal system, many property owners do not have a will. When a landowner dies, the land is automatically passed on to the surviving family members (heirs). Each heirs' share of the property is "undivided" however; although each owns a specific percentage of the whole, no heir can point to a specific piece of the property that he or she owns. If the heirs, who now own a portion of the land, also do not have a will when they die, their interests in the land will be further divided among their descendants. With each passing generation, the land continues to be divided among surviving heirs.

Heirs' property presents two critical challenges for owners. First, any owner can seek a legal partition (usually a sale by auction) of the property to secure their individual interest, which can lead to the dispossession of family members who are living on the property. In addition, ownership by multiple heirs often prevents families from being able to realize the value of their property, because banks and other resource providers require the signatures of all owners.

Learn more about the Center's initiatives in heirs' property on our community inclusion page.

Law students arrive in Aberdeen on the second day of the project

Fall Break 2011 Wills Trip

The Center for Civil Rights, in collaboration with the UNC Law Schools Pro Bono Program and Legal Aid of North Carolina, helped coordinate and lead the sixth pro bono Wills Project. The project provides intensive practical skills training for law students, and then takes them into under-resourced communities across the state to help prepare wills, powers of attorney and living wills for Legal Aid eligible clients. In October, 22 law students, working under the supervision of Center staff, Legal Aid and volunteer private lawyers, staffed wills clinics in Chatham and Moore County, and served 29 clients and drafted and executed 76 advanced directives.

The Center's interest in the Wills Project, which it helped initiate in 2009, is twofold: to prospectively address the challenges that heirs' property presents in the excluded communities with which we work; and to help engage and train the next generation of civil rights lawyers.

The Wills Project provides direct outreach and information to community members about the potential impacts of heirs' property and offers prospectively engages them to help limit the scope and impacts of heirs' property.

The Wills Project is also designed to directly engage students in social justice advocacy and in providing legal services to clients who would otherwise be unable to secure this critical assistance. As has been the case in the past, the impact on the students was profound, and best described in their own words.

UNC Law students and volunteer attorney drafting wills in Siler City

"The Wills Trip reminded me of why I came to law school. A lot of us students probably do not realize how many people do not have access to the legal system. Being able to provide such an important service to those people who would otherwise not receive that service was most fulfilling." Kevin Denny

"If I ever needed a reminder about why I chose to pursue law as a career, the Wills Trip . . . created the perfect opportunity. Each client I served not only was thankful for my services, but patiently waited as I worked through material that was unfamiliar to me. I saw firsthand how my career as a lawyer will help others." Lindsey Frye

Joey Polonsky described his interactions with clients on the Wills Project as "experiences that I will always take with ne wherever my legal career goes."

Planning for the Spring 2012 Wills Project, which will travel to eastern North Carolina, is already underway. Interested UNC Law Students and volunteer attorneys can contact the Center or the UNC Law Pro Bono Program for more information.

Posted by Mark Dorosin on Fri. November 4, 2011 3:33 PM
Categories: Community Inclusion, Heirs' Property, Law Students, Pro Bono
UNC School of Law | Van Hecke-Wettach Hall | 160 Ridge Road, CB #3380 | Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380 | 919.962.5106

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