Natavia lives in the 800 square-foot family house her grandmother bought on the east side of Jacksonville, Florida almost 80 years ago. Natavia is the third generation to call the property home.

“I value the house for the memories,” she said. “I grew up spending the summers with my grandma, hearing the stories of her walking to work way on the other side of town, just to have a home.”

At 40 years old, raising two children while working and attending college, Natavia expected to own that house by now. She’s lived there for the last 15 years, paying monthly rent to her father and covering the cost of the aging home’s needed repairs. Recently, though, Natavia learned that she cannot get ownership rights to her home.

When her grandmother died without a will, the home’s ownership passed along to her children by default per state law. Without any legal documentation from Natavia’s grandmother about which child would inherit it, each now has an equal ownership share. Natavia’s father would like to leave ownership of the home to her after he dies. But if his siblings don’t agree, that can’t happen.

Natavia’s home is what’s known as heirs’ property. Real estate can become heirs’ property when the owner dies without a will or estate plan in place. It can also happen when someone who does have a will leaves property to multiple people without specifics.

A family home in jeopardy

Heirs’ property often affects families with fewer financial resources. The property may be one of the family’s most significant assets, but having multiple heirs as owners makes it difficult and expensive to maintain the property or unlock its value. This type of ownership situation also tends to spark family disagreements over how to handle the property.

“It was always verbally understood in the family that my dad would own that house,” said Natavia, whose last name is being withheld to protect her family’s privacy. “But he’s one child out of two other siblings.” Without agreement among all three, one of them cannot pass it along with full ownership rights to any one of their children.

Now Natavia faces losing the home she thought would be hers. She cannot afford the cost of market rate rent or a mortgage on a home elsewhere in Jacksonville. She has no financial share of the home that she’s helped to pay the property taxes on and used her own earnings to fix up over the years.

Read the full article about heirs' property by Gabriella Chiarenza at LISC.