More than two decades ago, legal academics warned Thomas Wilson Mitchell that pursuing policy reforms meant to help low-income people hang onto their family properties—or at least get a fair price when such properties are sold following a death and the absence of a will—was a waste of time. Similar efforts had floundered and failed, but Mitchell—now a law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law—was undeterred. It’s a good thing, too.

Mitchell has been named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, an honor more commonly known as the “MacArthur Genius Grant,” which comes with a no-strings-attached $625,000 prize. Mitchell is the only lawyer among this year’s 21 recipients and was recognized for his pioneering work in property rights. He drafted the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA), which has since been enacted in 17 states, including Texas, Georgia and Virginia, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands. The act bolsters the property rights of families that inherit what’s known as “common real property,” which is widely recognized as the most unstable form of property ownership because it’s divided equally among multiple owners. Over the years, state courts have increasingly ordered the forced sale of such properties—rather than divide them up among owners—in processes that yield far lower sale prices than open market sales.

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