On July 23, 2013 the BBC published an article entitled “World Bank: Africa held back by land ownership confusion.” The article summarized a World Bank report, observing that “Africa’s economic growth is being held back by confusion over who owns vast swathes of agricultural land.” According to BBC’s international development correspondent, Mark Doyle, for example, “It’s often the case that plots in urban areas have been divided, then sub-divided through generations of families, creating confusion over who owns what.” The situation enables investors from richer countries outside Africa to purchase millions of hectares that they claim are unoccupied. This confusion contributes to the continent’s having the world’s highest poverty rate despite containing half of the world’s arable land. The World Bank concludes that land regulation must be improved for Africa to fully exploit its resources and create jobs and recommends that governments secure properties rights for communities and individuals.
The United States, in contrast, can deal with property issues on the basis of relatively reliable land records. We have the luxury of dealing with many (not all) issues on a more surgical basis: for example, by establishing new procedural remedies to protect against unjust or destabilizing manipulation of existing legal rights.
Georgia’s recent passage of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act is an example of this legislative approach. Georgia properties passed from generation to generation of a family by intestate succession (called “heirs property” in the Georgia Act) may cause title problems not unlike those identified in Africa by the World Bank report. As stated by the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the primary proponent of the Heirs Property Act in Georgia:
Heir property involves the passing of a home or other real property across multiple generations outside of the official probate process. As title to a home becomes less clear and more fractioned across heirs, the risk of being forced out of the home by a legal action becomes greater. In addition, lack of clear title prevents access to wealth-generating tools commonly associated with land ownership. Low-income rural African Americans across the South are disproportionately hurt by the heir property problem. http://www.gaappleseed.org/heir/
Georgia Appleseed also highlights the tight focus of the Heirs Act:
The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act will establish a number of important protections for owners of heirs property. The legislation does not limit or prohibit the filing of a partition action, and does not replace in any comprehensive way existing partition laws with respect to non-heirs property; rather, the Act will provide a set of narrowly focused statutory procedures and a hierarchy of remedies for use in partition actions involving heirs property. Key highlights of the legislation include
We real estate lawyers sometimes wonder whether what we do really makes a difference. The World Bank analysis of the failure of African real property systems and records and the effect of that failure upon African society as a whole suggests that those who are responsible for the integrity of the real property transfer process and the real property records play key roles in the maintenance of one of the pillars of a healthy society.