Florida Lawmakers Look Into What Happens To Property When There’s No Will And Family Can’t Agree

Dec 16, 2019
Originally published on December 13, 2019 6:19 pm

When someone dies without a will, their land goes to family. But it can lead to some sticky situations. A group of Democratic lawmakers is looking into the issue.

What is Heirs Property?

When someone dies without a will, their land passes onto their children. Each child is treated as the land’s property owner. If one the siblings dies, their share is passed onto their descendants. This is called heirs property. Over the years, more and more property owners are added to the land.

Sandra Harris Thompson made heirs property the subject of her dissertation. She’s faculty at Florida A&M University and for the past two years has helped people navigate heirs property issues. And she knows about the issue personally.

“My grandparents were sharecroppers—tenant farmers. Their oldest son was in the Korean War. He sent them money back for them to purchase property,” Thompson says.

When Thompson’s grandmother died, she didn’t have a will, and her land became heirs property.  Thompson’s divided the land among relatives. But it's not always so easy.

When It Gets Complicated

If relatives can’t agree on what to do, the matter goes to court. The judge can then decide whether to allow relatives to buy the disagreeing party's share. If they don't or can't buy the share, the judge could then force a sale. Attorney Jami Coleman has worked on heirs property cases. She says when a sale is forced, family property isn't always sold at a fair price.

The New Proposal

Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee) is pushing a proposal that would help build a framework for dealing with the issue in court. His bill would require judges to allow families to buyout a relative who wants to sell their land. If they can’t buyout, the judge must see if the land can be divided among relatives. If that can’t be done, courts would have to sell the property at a fair market price.

North Florida Legal Services’ Scott Manion works with clients who live in rural areas on a fixed income. He’s helped several of them with heirs property. Manion says Bracy’s proposal probably won’t help most low-income families because he says no matter the amount, most won’t be able to pay.

“You ask me how many people could raise $70,000 that quickly. You know, it’s just not that easy," Manion says.

The Senate version of the proposal passed its first committee hearing Tuesday. The House version has not yet been filed.

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