Our House DC - Keeping the House
In her book, My Legacy Personal Planning Portfolio: Leaving a Legacy Instead of Leaving A Mess she outlines the things families need to do to insure their biggest asset doesn’t wind up being their biggest financial regret.
For many Black Americans, the “family home” holds a meaning more
profound than just the space under its roof. It is a place of respite and
comfort for the people tied by bloodlines.
It’s a tradition that as Black people migrated North from the plantations and
fields of the South, the family home was where everyone gathered for c
celebrations or came to get their footing in search of greater opportunities.
It also served as a change of scenery that was as crucial to many families
as the surnames they bore.
Sadly, it’s also too often a familiar tale that the stately and sometimes even
sprawling homes purchased during the Great Migration no longer belong to
the families that recall them so well. Whether lost to back taxes or
predatory mortgage schemes that targeted elderly Black homeowners,
keeping the family home in the family is a particular struggle that too many
Black families have endured.
Just as often, infighting among relatives left behind when the original
owners passed away or entered care facilities, or a homeowner is unable to
maintain the property as areas gentrify around them can essentially “force”
a homeowner or their families to be enticed to get rid of a property, seeing
it more as a liability than anything more.
In addition, the legal entanglements that govern who lives in versus who
legally owns a house can be even messier than a teenager’s bedroom.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, heirs’ property is “the
leading cause of black involuntary land loss.” Heir’s property is land or a
home jointly owned by all of the descendants of an owner, allowing them to
use the property, but they have no right to sell or transfer it legally.
As no descendent holds the title to the home, none of the descendants is
the outright legal owner. So, as other homeowners could, using the house
for capital for loans and mortgages would not be permitted. Nor would
being selected for many federal and state grants to recover from a disaster.
The Biden Administration has an entire platform dedicated to helping Black
people who are contending with issues around heirs’ property.
Atlanta-based attorney Chantel Mullen has seen and heard similar stories
“countless” times, she explained. Pointing out that most conversations
about Black homeownership tend to focus on what it takes to get folks into
houses, Mullen suggests a more robust discussion should be about how to
help people remain in the homes they purchase.
In her book, My Legacy Personal Planning Portfolio: Leaving a Legacy
Instead of Leaving A Mess, she outlines the things families need to do to
ensure their biggest asset doesn’t wind up being their biggest financial
“It can’t be a one-time conversation!” stresses Mullen. “Start the
conversation early. You have to talk to people and say, ‘You know, I’m not
always gonna be here. Here’s what I want. Here’s what I’ve planned.”
Unfortunately, it’s not always the person who owns the home who has to be
the one to bring up the topic. While most families won’t have several
potential decision-makers to get on the same page, it is crucial to raise the
question with parents about what provisions they’ve made concerning the
Mullen says it’s not uncommon that some parents believe they’re being
private, but there are ways to get them to share. “What you have to tell
them is, ‘I’m not trying to get into your business, but I do want to handle
your business. You don’t have to tell me, but can you tell me if you have a
lawyer and who the lawyer is? I need to know who to go to if something
happens, and I hope he has your paperwork in order.’”
But the bottom line, according to Mullen, is that everyone needs three
things to ensure that families can keep their homes in their families.
“For one, you should have a will.” Mullens says, “Don’t have people
grieving and guessing! Tell them who is to inherit the property and how it
should be split if necessary.”
A will, according to Mullen, is only one concern. The COVID-19 pandemic
showed families why having a power of attorney and a healthcare power of
attorney can be just as necessary as the last testament.
“A will is about dying, but things happen in between death,” she said, “A
power of attorney is for people who got sick and went into the hospital or
were placed on ventilators- they were alive but incapacitated to the point
that they could not care for themselves for an extended period. And your
life still goes on! Your mortgage, your car note, insurance, light bill, cable
bill, phone bill, all that stuff still needs to be paid.”
But it isn’t only during a pandemic that family members scramble to figure
out how to pay bills and who has access to financial information. Mullen
points out that having someone who knows the information isn’t enough.
The designated person must have some standing to step in and take care
of a loved one’s financial and legal life if they’re unable.
While it’s sometimes hard to consider, Mullen says having someone who
can make medical decisions is another requirement for a plan.
“A healthcare power of attorney is that person able to make healthcare
decisions for you. Do you want extraordinary life-saving measures? Do you
want to be intubated? Do you want or do you not want to be resuscitated?
Those are all things you could and should tell people because if you don’t,
people will come to the table from their own place.”
Tough but essential conversations are vital to having a plan to maintain the
property in the family line. Too many families only have the option of
breaking out the family photo albums when they talk about the houses and
land that once belonged to them. Too many families have fought and even
split over disagreements on managing and maintaining or selling property.
Chantel Mullen points out that everyone’s wishes should be considered, so
that poor decisions aren’t made because they’re the simplest option. She
said families should remember, “You always have something that’s
valuable to somebody whether you place value on it or not.”