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The NAREB Building Black Wealth Blog:A Conversation about Inheritance, What to Do with Big Mama’s House, and Getting on a Path Towards Intergenerational Wealth

By Dominique Calhoun

(NAREB’s April 13th National Building Black Wealth Day will sponsor 100 local events around the country and virtual online presentations,

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My grandmother, the oldest of 14 siblings, passed away in 2018. She gave birth to seven children. Out of that lineage, none of them had a will. Luckily, all her children get along. Today, one of my aunts actually lives in my Grandma’s house. And her siblings are supportive of that. Yet, for many that is not the case.  However, because she passed intestate, the question that me and my cousins often ask is: What’s next for Big Mama's House?

In Texas - and many other parts of the country, this experience is far too common. Take my family for example, you have seven siblings with an equal birthright to my Grandma’s house. Upon each of their passing, the birthright will be given to their children if they do not leave a will or instructions regarding what to do with their property. 

As an example, my mother owns one-seventh of my Grandma’s house. If it passes without a will, then that one-seventh is now split between me, my older brother, and younger sister. Each of us would then also become owners of the property as was the case with my aunts and uncles.

Now instead of seven people owning the property, you have nine with me and siblings. That’s two additional decision makers. To further illustrate the problem, what if my aunt, the one who lives in the house, was to pass in the same way – without a will. She has two children. Her daughter still lives in the same city but has her own house. However, her son, who unfortunately passed away, had three children.  Now you take one-seventh that my aunt owned and you give one-half of that one seventh to her daughter. But because my cousin passed (also without a will) his three children now become owners of the same property. You have to take his one-half of one-seventh and divide according to the Texas Estate’s code in threes to each of the children who may not own the same percentage. Whew!

You may now see the problem that many of our families find themselves in. And this pattern will continue as others pass away.  Unfortunately, so many Black families are in similar places.

That’s why the National Bar Association, the nation’s oldest and largest association of Black attorneys, judges, and law professionals in the country, and the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, the oldest association of Black real estate professionals, are working together to educate Black families about property transfer. It plays a significant role in the creation of generational wealth. Historically, Black people have lost their property and suffered from gentrification because of the exact problem I described. And it is my belief that for years, we are not been provided the same inheritance toolkits with comprehensive information that our white counterparts have relied on to grow intergenerational wealth for decades.

One of the things I always say is that talking about death doesn't beget death. It doesn't bring about death. It puts a family in a position to retain Black generational wealth. If the most prized possession you own is your house, and if you spent your life toiling to ensure that you could have that house, why wouldn't you do everything you can in life or death to protect it? And it's not to say that this is a failsafe and a magic wand to protect the Black community or that this will ensure that we manage and maintain property within our communities. But it does provide a safeguard from what I will call “The Vultures,” the capitalists that come in our communities scheming and finding ways to gain control over the low-hanging fruit that are prized possessions for us.

When discussing how we manage the concept of wealth, we have to reteach our community and retool ourselves to ensure that we're prepared to take care of Big Mama's House. We have to begin to talk about the relationship between our community and death. Not in a negative way. But we need to ensure that our people are educated and told about wills, estates, trusts, and estate plans. We all will likely have something to leave behind; whatever it is, but we must prepare the next generation for it.

Further, we must have conversations about what people intend to do with their property and possessions. I beg; please do not leave it to chance because depending on the jurisdiction that you live in, the outcomes can be very different for you. For example, I live in the state of Texas. If you leave it up to chance, the Texas law says is that the property goes down the lineage. So, as illustrated earlier, if my mother dies without a will or without instructions on what to do with her property, her house belongs to me, my brother, and my sister. And many different outcomes could occur if we can't agree on what to do with it.

If someone fails to pay taxes, it could be seized by the government. Now you have a property that was once beloved and well cared for being lost. To prevent this scenario, the first thing we must do is change the way we view conversations about death. Secondly, everyone needs to make plain what you want to happen with your property.  And lastly, we need to prepare the next generation for what's ahead. In the instructions about what to do with your property, you must also prepare them for everything else that comes with that, meaning that someone must know what is happening in your life.

As attorneys, we have seen bad outcomes when families don’t take time to get things in order. The reason is that many people have outstanding debts and obligations that nobody knows about. There may be personal loans and IOUs that a person may have and when they die those obligations come due and creditors begin to attach those debts to the assets that are owned. It would be best to tell someone where all that information is before you pass. There may be hidden accounts. Someone may be happily married, and there is a little slush fund sitting some place.  It would be best if you told somebody where this stuff is. It would be best if you wrote it all down to help the next generation deal with your passing.

Write everything down. You can even leave instructions that be in a sealed envelope until you die. Many attorneys keep these types of instructions for you.

Upon a person’s passing, all kinds of questions need to be answered. Would Big Mama have wanted a white casket? Does she like blue? What type of flowers should we have at the services? The list of questions is numerous when you want to pay respects to your loved ones. Meanwhile, as a survivor is sitting there trying to answer all of these questions in this moment of grief, all they really want is to celebrate the time that they had with the person. Imagine if all of those questions were resolved. Imagine if you, being the person who passed away, prepared everybody for it. Make it easy for your survivors. What if you son or daughter only had to pick up the phone and call one person.

That one person knows everything that you wanted. Everything is written down - from the burial plot to the funeral home to the casket. Nothing left to chance. Nothing left for someone to have to guess.

Your loved ones don't need to worry about these things.  They should be able to talk about the grief they are experiencing or be able to celebrate your life. Let them do that. Don't overwhelm your loved ones and friends who are already consumed with losing you. 

The National Bar Association decided as an organization that we would not hold this information about what to do with death any longer; we want to share it with our families and communities. Personally, at family get-togethers, I go around and ask, ‘Do you have your will in order? Just tell me. I'll do it for you for free.’

We partnered with NAREB to say, “We have the legal expertise.” And, at some point, NAREB’s members will be the ones to help move the property because the family will want to sell it or make an investment of it.  This is why we have partnered. 

If we can educate the community about these things then maybe we can create better outcomes for families and our communities. What we don’t want to happen is what we continuously see.  Someone surprisingly receives a letter in the mail from the government because the taxes are due and no one was keeping up the property so now there is a forced sale. Or they find a cloud over the title because creditors are laying claim to it to cover a debt.

We want to help NAREB bring these conversations to families in a proactively way. So NAREB President Dr. Courtney Johnson Rose and I said let's go into the community for free, donate our time, and ensure we help protect Big Mama’s House – ultimately create Black wealth.

Historically, this information was passed along in the Black church. But we’ve reached a point where there needs to be more venues for sharing this information. That’s what we are creating with this partnership. By mixing lawyers and real estate professionals, we can reach more people and facilitate making Big Mama’s House a resource for the next generation.


(Dominique D. Calhoun is President of the National Bar Association.)



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