by Jarrett Caston, US Forest Service Program Specialist
Ms. Rebecca Campbell is a woman in South Carolina who owns 36 acres of heirs’ property. Heirs’ property is land passed down without a will. Ms. Campbell didn’t know that she owned heirs’ property until after her mother’s death in 1998. In addition to Ms. Campbell, about 50 or more family members share ownership, as family heirs, with Ms. Campbell.
“The land has been ours since 1890. My great-great grandmother owned the property and she didn’t have a will, so the property went into heirs’,” explained Ms. Campbell.
Ms. Campbell is in the process now of retaining her title as the owner. In order for her to get the title, she got help from the “Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation” in South Carolina. The Center has been providing legal education and direct legal services to heirs’ property owners in South Carolina to help them protect and keep their family land since 2005.
In 2013, the Center received funding from the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities to launch a “Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program” to provide families with forestry education, technical assistance and financial assistance to maximize the value and income from their land. This combination of stabilizing land ownership and transforming the land into a wealth-building asset is one pathway out of generational poverty in rural South Carolina.
In 2017, the Center expanded beyond its seven counties to include: Allendale, Bamberg, Clarendon, Hampton, Horry, Orangeburg, Sumter and Williamsburg. To date, the Center has cleared 164 titles to land worth a cumulative tax-assessed value of $8.8 million (Source - Tish Lynn, Director of Communications at the Center).
Ms. Campbell heard about the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation; applied; got involved with them and that’s when the process began. The application process started with an appointment to talk with one of the Center’s attorneys. After that, Ms. Campbell had to create a family tree, which has taken a long time. She has walked cemeteries to look at headstones to be sure of birth and death dates. It’s a slow process, but very important. All the heirs have to be found and the family has to come to agreement about what they want to do with their land.
“At this time the deal is not close, but getting the family tree started was the hardest part. Making contacts with family members was difficult because most are out of state. So we decided to do conference calls on Sundays and that helped get in touch with everybody,” remarked Ms. Campbell.
After Ms. Campbell’s mother died and she became an heir, Ms. Campbell decided to take over the property so it wouldn’t be lost and to honor what her great-great grandmother had done.
“As a landowner, you want to protect your property and do something with it.” Ms. Campbell said. “I would tell families to investigate; try to talk to people like me, or others working with heirs’ property. Take your time and know that there are people out there willing to help you. There is so much you can do with your land,” explained Ms. Campbell.
Among Ms. Campbell’s plans for her land is turning it into an RV motor camp site, because her land is in an area called the Ace Basin where three popular rivers pass through - Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto. A lot of tourists come here to see these rivers and her property sits right in the middle of it. Ms. Campbell’s land also has a canopy of oak trees where people can walk along a trail and see animal habitat.
The USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the South Carolina Forestry Department have also helped Ms. Campbell. The South Carolina Forestry Department has helped by taking her to various forestland and pine tree seedling sites and teaching her how to manage the trees and learn more about trees in general. The NRCS has helped her develop a forest management plan (FMP). They sent out a consultant to walk the property and tell Ms. Campbell what types of trees are growing now; told her the value of the land, and also gave her a small grant to help pay for the work to be done on the land according to her FMP.
In conclusion, Ms. Campbell is a woman who enjoys being outdoors and loves her land. With the help of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the South Carolina Forestry Department, Ms. Campbell will be able to keep her land and use it as she and her family pleases.