You may have been fortunate enough to inherit a partial interest in land. It may have been passed down from your parents, grandparents, or relatives even farther back in time. Maybe it wasn’t worth a lot when your ancestors owned it, but now it is worth selling or developing. There are some complications, though. Who are all of the owners? Who needs to sign a deed to sell it or to sign a mortgage to borrow money on it?
Let’s assume you want to sell it. You will have to figure out exactly who owns what interest in the land, and identify their spouses, if you are going to sell it and give good title to your purchaser.
For the first generation inheriting the land, it’s easy. The will of the deceased person or the Intestate Succession Act (if there was no will) answers the question. Those heirs and their spouses must sign the deed. (In North Carolina, spouses must sign the deed, even though the spouse did not inherit the land. This is because of an old North Carolina rule that a surviving spouse could choose a life estate in any real estate the deceased spouse owned. That life estate is not worth much, but because it exists by statute, spouses must sign the deed to sign away that life estate.)
Things get complicated after that point. If four adult children inherit land, for example, and one of them passes away, their share does not pass to their siblings, unless a will left it to siblings (which is unusual). More commonly, the four siblings’ shares get passed down eventually to their own children, making the shares smaller as the “pie” gets divided among more people. Shares at the next generation level will not necessarily be equal, depending on the number of children who survive each of the original four siblings.
With each death in the family tree, we first check to see if there was an estate file opened with the Clerk of Court, which would tell us who inherited that share. If no estate file was opened, we will have to do some legal and family research. We will need to find out from relatives and from vital records who survived each person who died. Then we apply the Intestate Succession Act to see which family members inherited from this person. Once we know who inherited, we identify their spouses as well.
If family members have moved away to different states, the records search can become more complicated.
I have seen cases where land has “sat” and simply passed down over four generations. In those cases, some of the shares are tiny, like 1/128th for example. At that point, the family tree is so full and so complicated that it requires dedication by one or more family members to solve the puzzle. The longer you wait to sort it out, the more difficult it is.
If it is possible given family circumstances, it is easier if family land ownership can be simplified before people start passing away. In the first generation to inherit, consider whether some owners might want to sell their interests to other family members. That is often a good solution if some of the siblings do not live in the area. If the piece of land is large enough, the first generation owners may want to have the land surveyed and divided it up into separate parcels for each sibling. Either of these will make it simpler to do something with the land later. If those options are not practical for your situation, at least keep good family history records as time passes.
Kim K. Steffan is an attorney with Steffan & Associates, P.C. in Hillsborough, NC. She can be reached at 919-732-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was last updated in January 2020.