Students at University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s UA Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law are gaining practical legal experience this summer through the school’s first Heirs’ Property Preservation Clinic, which provides legal assistance to heirs and family members interested in preserving heirs property, or land that has been passed down informally after the original owner dies without a will.
The clinic, directed by Professor Amy Pritchard, provides legal representation to landowners, legal education and outreach to rural communities, and technical assistance and training to service providers and attorneys.
In the four-credit clinical course, students study relevant substantive law and client interviewing techniques before traveling to Southwest Arkansas to meet with program partners and family landowners. Each Rule XV certified student attorney will advise and represent family landowners seeking to clear title or plan for future generations.
“The UALR Heirs’ Property Preservation Clinic has been an incredible experience for me as it has opened my eyes to a hidden, but very real problem throughout the United States,” Bowen student Will Graves said. “Heirs’ property ownership presents a significant roadblock for so many who could otherwise use family land as a source of income. Removing that roadblock does not just help those families, but by enabling them to use the land productively, it benefits us all.”
The clinic grew out of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention (SFLR) program, a partnership between Bowen and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The three-year pilot program, funded by the National Endowment for Forestry and Communities, couples UAPB’s outreach and forestry services with Bowen’s legal services to help rural landowners maximize the economic potential of their land and prevent future land loss. Other program partners include the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Arkansas Community Land and Development Corporation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
During the first 18 months of the SFLR program, Bowen’s Legal Clinic conducted six outreach and education events, advised 25 families, trained more than 50 community partners, and co-hosted a wills clinic with the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and pro bono attorneys. The clinic, through this new course, is providing legal assistance to nearly 20 families working to clear property titles and keep land in their families for future generations.
Family landowner Kim Marshall is working with the project to resolve her family’s property issues.
“There was always talk about the ‘family land,’ mainly how and why the land was acquired,” Marshall said. “It was the desire of my ancestors to keep the land in the family as a means of security for future generations. Unfortunately, my ancestors did not have the resources or the knowledge to ensure a succession plan for the land. Thankfully, the Bowen Legal Clinic has afforded my generation the tools to understand and implement the legal aspect of heirs’ property that will help us honor our ancestors’ wishes for keeping the ‘family land’ in the family for future generations.”
Marshall’s family is not alone. While rural land ownership can open the door to economic opportunity and multi-generational wealth creation, the unclear title of heirs’ property prevents families from maximizing the economic potential of the land. Although heirs co-own the property, the fractured title may keep landowners from accessing credit, qualifying for financial assistance, and selling timber for profit.
Heirs’ property is also extremely vulnerable to being lost through tax sales, partition sales, misuse by some heirs, and voluntary sales. This vulnerability, coupled with systemic discrimination in lending and government agencies, has had a devastating effect on African-American farmland owners.
A review of census data indicates that up to 90 percent of the 16 million to 19 million acres of agricultural land acquired by African Americans by 1910 had been lost by 1997.
For more information about the Heirs’ Property Preservation Clinic, contact Amy Pritchard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 501-324-9966.