Land ownership involves both possession and occupation of real property, which is only truly complete when supported by a valid title.
The concept of title encompasses a set of rights that a person or entity may hold over a property, including equitable or legal interests. These rights can be divided among multiple parties, which can sometimes lead to complex disputes that require litigation to resolve.
Deed Versus Legal Title: Are They the Same Thing?
A common misconception is that having a deed to a piece of real property is synonymous with having the title. However, from a legal standpoint, this is not always accurate.
A deed represents the physical document that attempts to transfer ownership, but merely possessing it does not guarantee the transfer of free and clear legal title to the recipient.
Misconceptions like this are why conducting a comprehensive title search of your state’s property records is of the utmost importance. Title searches serve as the primary tool for discovering title defects such as liens, easements, judgments, mortgages, and other encumbrances.
Identifying the Most Commonly Litigated Land Disputes
Legal disputes regarding title to and/or possession of real property can arise in a variety of ways.
One of the most frequent issues stems from confusion or disagreements between parties over who holds legal title to a property. Problems such as failure to properly record a land transfer, transferring the same land to different parties at separate times, and fraudulent transfers made by non-owners can all lead to litigation.
Other disputes that may result in a lawsuit include:
- Boundary disputes: These occur when neighboring property owners cannot agree on the limits of their respective properties. Courts will examine title records and professional survey reports to resolve these conflicts.
- Land use and zoning disputes: Disagreements can arise over who has access to the land and for what purpose. Local authorities may regulate land use through zoning laws, while parties may also dispute the scope and access of non-possessory rights like easements.
- Estate and probate disputes: Conflicts may emerge when real property is part of a deceased person’s estate, particularly over which heirs have ownership rights and the priority of those rights. Solutions may involve a forced sale or outright ownership granted to one or more heirs, depending on the will, estate planning documents, and state probate law.
- Adverse possession claims: An adverse possession claim arises when someone without legal ownership rights occupies and uses a property. The true owners must evict the possessor within a specified time frame, or the court may award full legal title to the occupier. Laws regarding adverse possession claims vary by state.
- Defective title: Many titles have some degree of defect, especially in single-family housing (e.g., mortgages, utility easements). While buyers often accept certain defects, a lack of disclosure may result in sale delays.
- Encroachment: This occurs when a property owner builds or places a structure on someone else’s property or beyond the property line. It can be accidental or intentional, but either way, it can lead to disputes and legal action.
- Nuisance: A nuisance is a condition on a property that interferes with another person’s use and enjoyment of their own property. Examples may include excessive noise, noxious odors, or unsanitary conditions. A lawsuit may be filed to stop the nuisance and recover damages.
- Eminent domain: The government has the power to take private property for public use but must provide just compensation to the property owner. Disputes may arise over the amount of compensation or the validity of the taking.
- Trespass: Trespass occurs when someone enters another person’s property without permission. It can be intentional or unintentional but may result in damages or injunctive relief in a lawsuit.
- Construction defects: When a building or structure is built with defects or design flaws, it can lead to problems and disputes down the line. Lawsuits may be filed to recover damages or force repairs to be made.
Resolving Title Issues and Disputes
Most title disputes are addressed through a lawsuit, commonly referred to as a quiet title action, filed in the appropriate county court.
The court will examine the property’s title history, including recorded encumbrances, past deeds, current documents, and other relevant attachments.
The objective is to resolve any title issues, assign ownership to one or more parties, or clarify or confirm encumbrances. This process may enable a sale to proceed as planned or result in a forced sale or one party paying monetary damages to another.
People with an interest in a property have a limited time frame to file their lawsuit, known as the statute of limitations. Unlike personal injury lawsuits, which typically have a shorter window, quiet title actions often have a longer statute of limitations, ranging from 10 to 20 years, depending on the state and circumstances.
Let’s say that Jane and John jointly own a piece of property, and John dies. After John’s death, his heirs claim that he actually owned the property outright and that Jane has no legal claim to it. Jane disagrees and files a lawsuit to establish her ownership rights.
However, in this case, Jane waits too long to file her lawsuit. The statute of limitations for quiet title actions in her state is 15 years, and she waits until 20 years have passed since John’s death to file her claim. As a result, the court may dismiss her case due to the expired statute of limitations, and she may lose her legal claim to the property.
This example shows how important it is to be aware of the statute of limitations when dealing with real estate disputes. Failing to file a lawsuit within the specified time frame can result in losing the right to seek legal recourse.
Do I Need a Lawyer for a Land Title Dispute?
If you have a problem with the ownership of real estate, such as a dispute over the title or other issues, seek the help of a real estate lawyer. Real property legal matters can be complicated, and each state has its own laws. Mishandling a case can lead to financial harm and the loss of ownership rights.
An experienced real estate attorney can assist you with negotiations, litigation, and all other legal processes, ensuring that your interests are properly represented. By hiring a real estate lawyer, you can have peace of mind knowing that your case is in good hands.
LegalMatch is an online legal service that can connect you with a qualified real estate lawyer who can assist you with your land title dispute. Simply submit your case details to LegalMatch, and you’ll be matched with a pre-screened attorney who has experience in your specific legal issue.
LegalMatch offers a free initial consultation with the lawyer, allowing you to discuss your case and determine if they’re the right fit for you. By using LegalMatch, you can have confidence that you’re working with a reputable and experienced attorney who can help you resolve your land title dispute in the best possible way.
Use LegalMatch to find the right real estate lawyer for your case and move forward with the confidence you need to fight or defend against a land title lawsuit in court.