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'Silver Dollar Road' and the Legal Pitfalls of Heirs' Property

By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

In the 2023 film 'Silver Dollar Road,' documentarian Raoul Peck tells the story of brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, their mother Gertrude, their sister Maimie, and 65 acres of marshy coastal land in North Carolina that has been in their family for generations.

Melvin and Licurtis, now 76 and 65 years old, lived on this property their entire lives. Their great-grandfather, Elijah Reels, purchased the land in 1911. They fished the waters of Adams Creek and grew produce to sell. They built homes and ran businesses on the property. In times of racial segregation, this land included the only beach in the county that welcomed Black families.

But in the mid-1980s, another relative secretly sold the waterfront portion of the property to a developer. Those 13.5 acres of prime real estate became the focus of decades of legal battles. Melvin and Licurtis even spent eight years in jail over it.

In January 1944, Carteret County took ownership of the 65-acre plot on Silver Dollar Road due to tax issues. But within a month or two, Elijah Reels' son, Mitchell, purchased the land back from the county.

Mitchell died intestate in 1971. In 1976, his daughter, Gertrude (Melvin and Licurtis's mother), and other relatives filed a civil action to affirm the property rights of Mitchell's heirs. The court ruled the family were the land's rightful owners.

In 1978, Mitchell Reels' brother, Shedrick, successfully petitioned the Carteret County courts to register around 13 acres of the family's land (including the waterfront property) in his own name. He achieved this through a legal process called a Torrens proceeding.

Shedrick filed a trespassing claim against Gertrude and Melvin a few years later. They argued they had an heir interest in the waterfront property. But, the trial court found that Shedrick was the rightful owner and ordered the rest of the family not to trespass.

In 1985, Shedrick sold the waterfront property to Adams Creek Development. The company seemingly didn't do much with the property for nearly two decades, and the property disputes went dormant for a while.

Melvin ran a club called Fantasy Island and established a successful shrimping business. Licurtis built a house on the water near their mother's home. Both had building and business permits tied to the land.

But it didn't matter.

In 2006, Licurtis and Melvin received eviction notices requiring them to leave the property. The documentary asserts that the brothers received threats and even suffered property damage when they refused to leave. The brothers made it clear they had no intention of leaving the waterfront property.

In 2011, the local court held Melvin and Licurtis in civil contempt. The brothers spent the next eight years in jail while still keeping up the fight for the Silver Dollar waterfront.

Their story was featured in an article by ProPublica in 2019, which led to the documentary. They still haven't given up the property, and the legal battle rages on. It feels like an extraordinary story, but it's one that has played out many times across the country, primarily at the expense of Black landowners.

What Is Heirs' Property?

"Heirs' property" refers to property that passes to a person's descendants when they die intestate (without a will). The person who dies without a will is known as the "decedent" in this area of law. Millions of acres of land worth billions of dollars are held as heirs' property in the United States, primarily in Appalachia and southern states.

Intestate succession laws vary by state, but property generally passes to the decedent's spouse, children, and grandchildren.

Someone might choose not to create a will because they believe doing so will keep their property "in the family," especially if they don't trust the legal system. But while a person's heirs are legally entitled to their property in the absence of a will, heirs' property often creates complex legal issues.

Heirs inherit an interest in the land as you would stock in a company. Different heirs can have different percentage interests, but the property itself is not divided. Instead, everyone has an interest in the entire property.

If land passes through several generations, this increases the number of heirs and the potential for legal issues. And if the property's title remains in the now-deceased family member's name, it is considered "cloudy." Cloudy title can further complicate things for all heirs. It even opens up the possibility for one family member or another interested party to swipe land out from under the rest, as we saw in the Reels' case.

How Can Estate Planning Prevent Land Loss?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Library estimates that heirs' property issues contributed to the loss of more than 11 million acres of land held by Black landowners over the last 100 years.

Developments in USDA and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines can help many who hold farmland as heirs' property. Heir's property holders can also obtain assistance from non-profit organizations, such as the Black Family Land Trust or the Center for Heirs Property Preservation.

But the best way to avoid these issues is to keep land from becoming heirs' property in the first place.

Estate planning documents, like a will, create a legally binding plan for your property. They can lay out exactly who should receive the property and when. When drafted properly, a simple will avoids intestacy and resolves ownership disputes before they start.

Those without complex assets can often create a will on their own. But if you own a large, valuable piece of property, it's best to have an attorney help you. They can also guide you through heirs' property issues. Before talking to an attorney, it helps to create a family tree, find out the identities of other heirs, and collect as much information as possible about other owners.

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