Without a will, heirs’ property attracts land-grabbing predators, but an ex-USDA worker is helping protect Black farms 

Beverly Burkett and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Small Farm Program want to keep Black farms in the family.

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Estate planning has long been challenging for African Americans. Estimates show that as many as 50% of Black people die without a will while as many as 70% are living without one. Those who encounter any legal issues when administering their loved one’s estate may need the services of probate lawyers.

One woman, a former worker at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is doing what she can, aided by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Small Farm Program, to help the families of Black farmers who pass away without leaving a will. 

A former worker at the U.S. Department of Agriculture is doing what she can to help the families of Black farmers who die without a will to keep their land. (Photo: Eric Shelton/Clarion Ledger via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Beverly Burkett, the owner of F&B Associates, previously worked at the USDA Farm Service Agency. Now, she and the HBCU are being of service trying to keep Black farms in family ownership, helping descendants as they navigate the complications related to inherited land being designated as heirs’ property. 

She explained to Arkansas Online how family-owned land passed down without a will is often held by descendants as “tenants in common.” 

“In these cases, each owner has an undivided interest in the land,” said Burkett. “Any owner or anyone that purchases a small interest in the land can file with the court to force other owners to sell. These ‘partition sales’ often occur against the wishes of other family members. The result is often a sale that does not meet fair market value and may result in the dispossession of family members from their inherited land.”

She shared how predatory developers often keep an eye out for this kind of property, then make an effort to buy part of the land — a move they then use to muscle other family members into selling. 

Burkett notes that Arkansas is one of 17 states that passed a Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act, which protects vulnerable landowners by requiring an offer to buy the land extended to family members first. 

There is a process to reconstituting the land to stay in the family, including updating crucial documentation like deeds, purchase contracts and certifications by an heir. 

Burkett advises Arkansas farm families needing assistance to reach out to the USDA Farm Service Agency or the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Extension at (870) 575-7225. 

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