The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced a bill Tuesday intended to preserve long-held property within an owner’s family even if they lacked a proper will.
Sen. Randolph Bracy‘s Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (SB 580) allows the heirs of a property a chance to purchase the entire property before one party can partition and sell it. Current Florida law allows for any heirs in cases without a clear will to request the property be partitioned and force a sale.
Real estate speculators use this loophole by targeting an unwitting heir to property kept within a family for decades or centuries, ultimately purchasing the property below market value, the Ocoee Democrat said. Sometimes 40 or 50 heirs may exist following the death of a property owner with no will.
“So when you say, ‘Hey, I’d like to buy your share of the property,’ they could offer $500, and for someone that didn’t even know they owned some property, they willingly take it,” Bracy said.
And because all heirs share equal rights over the property, real estate prospectors can partition or sell the land, often under market value without the other heirs even knowing the sale is happening.
“When we’re talking about a person’s life work of passing on properties, it’s like a family heirloom,” Bracy said. “For someone to take it in a week’s time a property that’s been a family’s possession for over a century is wrong, it’s un-American, and I think we need to deal with it.”
His bill, penned by Texas A&M law professor Thomas Mitchell, would give notice to the other heirs when one wants to split or sell the land and have an independent body appraise the land value. The other heirs could then buy off that land from the prospective developer at market value.
“I think it will, for all intents and purposes, eliminate the problem,” Bracy said.
The 2018 federal farm bill, which gave special property certification rights to residents of states with heirs property laws, catalyzed momentum nationwide for adopting the law. At least 14 states now have uniform legislation while others, including Florida, have legislation in progress.
People who fall victim to the land-selling practice tend to be low-to-moderate-income and lack legal understanding or access to legal services, Bracy said. His bill has garnered a diverse group of supporters in Florida, including the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law (RPPTL) Section of the Florida Bar.
“The type of property owners that are impacted represent an incredibly diverse group of owners,” Mitchell said. “We’re talking farmers and ranchers, folks who own single-family homes in cities, suburbs and rural areas, and in certain places, indigenous groups.”
But Bracy also said Hispanic and African American property owners disproportionately lack wills and can fall victim to predatory tactics. Today’s heir property loophole, he said, was just the latest example in the country’s history of minorities losing their property, dating back to terrorism and lynchings in the early 20th century.
Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, a member of the Judiciary Committee, praised Bracy for negotiating with RPPTL and creating a bill that left all interested parties satisfied and that wedged the uniform bill’s language into existing Florida law.
“So many times in this condition, the properties have little value to any of the owners given the circumstance if they’re all tied together but there’s no pathway forward of how to utilize the benefits of this property for all these heirs,” Baxley said.
A companion bill (HB 349), by Democrats Loranne Ausley and Ramon Alexander, is currently awaiting a hearing in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee.