SUMMERVILLE — The property Wendy Reed’s great-grandmother inherited in 1957 near downtown Summerville was sold in 2012 to pay a $112 delinquent property tax bill, and after years of fighting Dorchester County in court over it, Reed has conceded defeat.
A lawsuit that framed the sale as a civil rights issue ended this summer when the S.C. Court of Appeals upheld an earlier ruling in the county’s favor.
Former state lawmaker Thomas Limehouse, who bought Reed’s eighth-of-an-acre family property for $2,000 at a delinquent tax auction, was also a defendant.
Reed said she hopes to buy the property back from Limehouse, who said he’s been negotiating with the family.
Reed’s lawyer Nancy Bloodgood had argued Reed should have been able to buy back the property before the county transferred it to Limehouse in 2014, but that she faced discrimination as a Black heirs’ property owner.
Bloodgood said Dorchester County refused to let Reed reclaim the tax-delinquent property because her name wasn’t on the deed. Heirs’ properties are those that have been handed down through families without the benefit of written wills or probate court, leaving them with tangled titles.
Reed’s case illustrates how delinquent tax sales are a particular challenge facing heirs’ property owners. People who lose a property through a delinquent tax sale have a year to reclaim it by paying back taxes, fees and interest, but those with heirs’ property face the challenge of proving it was their property to reclaim.
“I never understood the problem with living on heirs’ property,” said Reed, who raised a son and daughter in her manufactured home on West Richardson Avenue. She’s continued living there with her husband and three grandchildren while the court case played out.
“I never knew it was so easy to lose property like that,” Reed said.
As one heir of the deceased former owners of the land, Reed owned 1/75th of the property, but none of that was legally recorded. It’s not an uncommon situation in South Carolina, particularly in Black communities.
Heirs’ property has been cited by federal officials as a leading cause of involuntary losses of Black-owned land during the 20th century.
Reed had paid the taxes on the property for years but when it went to the delinquent tax sale and she sought to reclaim it, Dorchester County wanted her to prove she was an owner. At that point it was too late to probate the estate, clearing up the ownership stakes of multiple heirs legally would have been costly and such procedures often take years.
“It didn’t seem to matter as long as I was paying,” Reed said. “They were happy to take my money.”
Josh Walden, chief of operations at the Center for Heirs Property Preservation, said Reed had sought their help and was told she needed to redeem the property — reclaim it from the tax sale process — before the nonprofit could help her clear up the deed.
Walden said he’s not aware of any other South Carolina county “that has such a strict interpretation of what constitutes an owner.”
“It’s an interpretation that can be devastating to a family,” he said. “At least every county I’ve come across, this hasn’t been an issue except for Dorchester.”
Reed lived on the property and paid the annual tax bill for years until she didn’t in 2011. The property then went to the annual delinquent tax auction in 2013. However, having paid the taxes didn’t legally make her a “defaulting taxpayer” who could redeem the property, and she could not prove she was a “grantee from (the prior) owner” which also would have allowed her to reclaim the land under state law.
“I went to the big courthouse in St. George and they told me I had to probate the land,” said Reed. “I didn’t know what probate was.”
Walden said most counties would just accept payment, and the property would return to its previous status as an heirs’ property with the taxes up to date.
Treating heirs’ property owners differently in delinquent tax sales is a practice Bloodgood claimed “has caused the loss of a significant amount of African American owned property in rural Dorchester County” and is “motivated by a discriminatory intent.”
Courts didn’t see it that way.
In a 2019 decision that was upheld on appeal in the summer of 2022, Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson put the blame for the loss of Reed’s family property on Reed’s shoulders, writing: “It was Plaintiff that failed to pay taxes, failed to respond to the certified notices, failed to probate her father’s estate, failed to have the Probate Court make a Determination of Heirs and failed to respond with any other information necessary to determine her eligibility to redeem.”
Dorchester County, through a spokesperson, refused requests for interviews with officials involved in delinquent tax sales and declined to comment on the eight-year court case beyond stating: “The county has and continues to follow the law regarding delinquent taxes and the sale of property.”
The county’s defense was handled by the state’s Insurance Reserve Fund.
After Reed’s property went to tax sale, Dorchester County said it sent certified notices to a dozen “parties with an interest in the property” including Reed’s great-grandmother who died in 1984, and her late father. None of them responded, according to the county, and Reed was not among those the county listed as having been sent notices.
“I know Dorchester County did what they should have done legally and morally,” said Limehouse, who was a lawyer before he was sent to jail in 1991 after his guilty plea in the Operation Lost Trust S.C. Statehouse bribery scandal and his law license was suspended.
The takeaway, he said, should be that “this is all the more reason why people need to probate property.”
Limehouse had also purchased at tax sale an heirs’ property partly owned by Reed’s sister, and later sold it back to her.
“Everything is amicable and no one seems bitter,” he said.
Limehouse said he’s currently talking with Reed and her husband about renting the property they live on, which he now owns, and potentially buying it back from him.