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Will power: Could property inheritance help close U.S. 'wealth gap'?

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 10:00 GMT

A man walks a dog past a row of vacant houses on Crandall Street, in Binghamton, New York, U.S., April 8, 2018. Picture taken April 8, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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With will writing in decline in the United States, financial experts warn a lack of estate planning among low-income and minority communities leaves families at risk of losing their homes

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, Nov 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From her home in West Oakland, a gentrifying neighbourhood across the bay from San Francisco, Iris Corina could see a looming problem — and she worried her neighbours were not doing enough to prepare.

Of the more than 70 families living around her, she knew of just two that had formally written wills and gone through the related legal process to ensure their homes passed on to their children when they died.

"African-American properties are not being transferred (to the next generation)," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Property values have gone up so much, our children can't afford to buy a home in West Oakland."

"So what's going to happen when you pass, and your son and daughter aren't getting along? You need to make it as easy as possible not to lose (your) property," said Corina, 70, who finished up her own will a year ago.

Financial experts warn that the lack of estate planning among U.S. low-income and minority communities leaves families at risk of losing what is often their largest single asset, potentially propagating longstanding racial inequalities.

While 45% of white adult Americans respondents have a will, just 31% of black Americans do, according to a 2019 survey from Caring.com, a non-profit for caregivers.

Further, will writing in general is on the decline, with a Gallup 2016 survey revealing a 6% drop from a decade earlier, in addition to significantly lower rates among poor Americans.

The issue is getting new attention, fueled in part by the increasing recognition of the persistent "wealth gap" between white and minority communities, lawyers and banking executives told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Astrid Andre, an adjunct professor at New York Law School who focuses on economic development, noted that homeownership has historically been seen as a safeguard against gentrification and a tool for lifting families out of poverty.

But there has not been similar emphasis on maintaining that asset between generations, she added.

"Having (estate planning) as a priority as part of our financial literacy discussion could be really helpful," she said.

"But it's not happening quite yet."


In the United States, what happens to the assets of a person who dies without a will varies from state to state.

Most states seek to split real estate among the deceased's surviving heirs, which usually means spouses and children but can also include distant relatives – none of whom are bound to the original owner's wishes.

A form of this problem known as heirs' property - a type of enforced communal ownership that can arise when land or a home is passed on without a clear will - has resulted in the loss of nearly 3.8 million acres of land over the past century, according to the U.S. government.

Most of that land, valued at some $6 billion, belonged to black families, the research showed.

The exact role that inheritance and related financial transfers between generations play in the wealth gap remains unclear.

A 2011 study from the Urban Institute, a U.S.-based policy research group, estimated that they account for about 12% of the gap, while other researchers have suggested it could be higher.

Either way, recognition of the link between wills and financial security has risen significantly among black Americans, said Teri Williams, president of OneUnited Bank, which serves black and low-income communities.

"A will is the least expensive thing you can do to leave intergenerational wealth," she said. "The importance of estate planning is critical."

One reason attention around the issue of estate planning is building is that the black generation that started to gain access to capital in the 1960s is now getting to the point where its members are thinking about their legacy, Williams explained.

"For a long time, our elders really were focusing on being able to take care of (their) children, and it has now moved to 'What legacy can I leave them?' That's a huge change," she said.

Archive Photo: A man walks past multi-colored homes that face the now-closed Bethlehem Steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S. April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder


Still, there are major obstacles to getting people to follow through on estate planning, according to families and legal experts.

It can be prohibitively expensive for many, said Corina in West Oakland, recalling that she was ready to spend $500 to write up her will when she found a cheaper option through a local non-profit.

The process is also time-consuming and nitpicky, she said — and it forces people to consider their own death, a task that is easy to put off until another time.

Corina got help with her will from Housing and Economic Rights Advocates, which began its estate-planning programme in 2017 in response to the high levels of housing foreclosures in the San Francisco area after the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

Initially, the non-profit was focused on housing preservation, explained one of its attorneys, Aeyoung Kim, but it soon realised there was a root problem that needed to be addressed: a lack of clear property titles.

"Someone's grandparents had purchased the home, and they were living there but didn't know that there were some (legal) steps they should have taken," Kim said.

"So they pay the mortgage or rent ... and (then) suddenly they receive a foreclosure notice."

The group is now the only non-profit in the state that does full estate planning, using grant money to lower the cost of the services, and high demand has made it difficult to keep up, according to Kim.

Across the country, Michael Corcoran is similarly straining to keep up with an onerous workload at the non-profit Grow Brooklyn, where he helps families work through foreclosure problems.

Every case he works on has underlying inheritance issues, Corcoran noted.

He referenced one current case involving a property valued at several million dollars that was likely purchased for $50,000 a half-century ago, which a mother had wanted to leave to her daughter but had never properly transferred.

Now, "this enormous asset is totally at risk of being squandered or substantially diminished in value," he said.

Corcoran said in the five years he has been doing this work he has seen a clear uptick in the focus on estate planning, but there is still a long way to go.

Policymakers need to think about waiving or lowering legal filing fees for low-income families, he said.

As for the public, Corcoran said it remains as difficult as ever to convince people to secure their homes for their children before it is too late.

"It's great we're doing all of this work to help people out of particular problems," he said. "But I'd love to see us help people avoid these problems entirely."

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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