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The truth about heirs' property issues in Florida

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Posted at 2:40 PM, Aug 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-17 12:24:43-04

MIAMI, Fla. — As this housing crisis continues, heirs’ property issues are becoming more and more common in Florida.

We're talking about property that gets passed down to family members by inheritance without a written will or paperwork that specifies it goes to them.

In some cases, there is a will that leaves the land to heirs', but it doesn’t specify who gets what.

We take a deep dive into the issue and how organizations and neighbors are trying to find solutions.

“I did not want to lose our home that we grew up in,” Natasha Abner stated.

Abner has lived in the Richmond Heights community of Miami for over 50 years. She recently dealt with an heirs' property issue after the passing of her grandfather.

His home was left to her mother and disabled uncle.

“Basically, what they had to do is actually quick claim deed the property over to me, in order for me to be able to save it. However, because there is a brother who is older than me who is deceased, we first had to make sure there are no children for him,” she said.

In Natasha’s case, there weren’t. But if there were, the house would have gone to them.

It was a lengthy, confusing process she completed with the help of a lawyer. But in doing so, she noticed many of her neighbors were faced with the same thing.

“So the vast majority of African American homes in this neighborhood, the majority of them have reverse mortgages. The majority of them have a lot of siblings, and they just don’t have the knowledge of what can be done,” she explained.

After her experience, Natasha went back to school to study real estate to learn just that.

And it’s not just her.

There are nonprofits in Miami, like Legal Services of Greater Miami, which has 40 cases that started within the last year due to this very issue.

“And they run the gambit. So it can be anything from a person saying I have my home and I want to create a will so I can transfer my home,” stated Lisa Lauck, the Advocacy Director.

She furthered, “But we also have cases where somebody is currently living in what is heirs' property, and those are the cases that are complicated and take more time to figure out what’s the best way to try to work it out so the people who are living there can maintain it as their home.”

And it’s not just in Miami, but in Jacksonville.

LISC Jacksonville is a financial intermediary that works to keep wealth from seeping out of the underserved communities.

“In Florida, we are particularly vulnerable to storms, and they can hit a community at any time,” shared Dr. Irving Cohen of LISC Jacksonville.

Unfortunately, when there’s no end-of-life directive, and you add in the sometimes complex relationships of families, it can be a challenge.

Cohen continued, “It is specifically an issue in vulnerable communities because now that property becomes vacant properties. And again, when you are talking about institutional investors, they are savvy enough to buy off family members and pick them off.”

It’s a common practice throughout the state.

“It’s lack of knowledge, lack of financing. Credit. Credit is a big problem,” explained Abner.

She furthered, “A lot of people are not aware that credit is important in order to help them. These developers come in and say okay, I am going to help you with your credit, and I am going to help you do this, and before you know it, you have signed your home away.”

At LISC, they are averaging about 100 cases a year, but there are roughly 12 thousand in their area, “We have committed to resolving at least 27 hundred in some of our most vulnerable communities, and that has an economic impact of about 169 million dollars.”

Cohen continued, “That means we are looking at putting 169 million dollars back into the local economy. And that’s because we know once people resolve their heir’s property issues, they become property taxpayers. They take care of their property. So, it has an economic consequence in our community.”

Recently, the state has made strides in trying to adopt parts of national standards into Florida’s heirs' property law, “If one of the part owners wants to force a partition sale, they have to first offer their share to the other owners, so if that investment entity wanted to force that. First the other owners have to be given the opportunity to buy that share,” explained Lauck.

However, while it’s good protection, it may not save that family’s home.

Lauck shared, “The problem is in cases we see here, those other family members may not have the money to buy that 1/3 share. If a house is worth 400 thousand dollars,” she furthered. “So those individuals may not have the means to buy out that person's share.”

It’s a fear that Abner has seen play out time and time again, “I feel like we are being shafted. Honestly, if I can say anything about it, we are just not given the fair chance to be here anymore.”

It’s why she and other local organizations are hoping that by going out into the community and teaching others of their rights and options, heirs' property issues, could be far and few between.