George Mason Law Review
Johnny Rivers was born and had lived his whole sixty-nine-year life on the same seventeen-acre tract on Clouter Creek near the Cainhoy Peninsula of Charleston, South Carolina. His father owned the land since 1888, and his family had worked the land and paid taxes, never missing a tax payment. He thought he and his family would live on the land for the rest of his life.
However, in 2000, he received a letter telling him he was the subject of a legal action called a "partition.” A family member who was a part owner of the land and whom Rivers had never met decided he wanted to sell his interest in the land. The court would later order the Rivers family to sell the land and accept the auction bid of an investor for $910,000, of which Rivers received less than 4%. Attorney's fees were charged to the Rivers family which came out of the sale proceeds. Rivers and twenty-five members of his family were evicted in one of the largest evictions in the county. The investor then sold the same property eight months later for three million dollars. The lot was then subdivided into smaller lots around acres, each of which sold for two million dollars or more." All told, Rivers received around only $30,000.
Unfortunately, Rivers, and many other property owners for which this is an all-too-common occurrence, had no idea that this sort of result is possible. Most assume that because they live on the land, or pay taxes, or because the land ownership is divided among many co-owners, no one can force them to leave.
However, it is exactly because of this last characteristic-the fractionalized ownership of land among many related individuals-a condition known as "heirs property" that the Rivers' land, and so many other pieces of property, are vulnerable. Since any co-owner in this situation can seek an order from a court for the land to be divided, and because courts routinely divide the value of the land not by splitting it into parcels ("partition in kind"), but by auctioning it at a forced sale and distributing the proceeds ("partition by sale"), co-owners in this situation can be forced off their own land despite their familial, financial, or historical connection to it.
Rishi Batra, Improving the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, 24 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 743 (2017).