When it comes to land ownership, actual possession and occupation of real property is only complete when it is backed up by title. Title is defined as the bundle of rights that a person or entity may hold either equitable or legal interest in. This bundle can be separated and different rights held by different parties, which leads to complications and disputes that must sometimes be settled through litigation.
Is a Deed the Same Thing as Legal Title?
Many people assume that having a deed to a piece of real property is the same thing as having title, but in the legal sense that is not always true. A deed is the physical document that purports to transfer ownership, but simply having one does not mean that it transfers free and clear legal title to the recipient.
This is why it is so important to do a thorough title search of your state’s property records. It is probably the most important discovery tool to find title defects like liens, easements, judgments, mortgages, and other encumbrances.
What are the Most Commonly Litigated Land Disputes?
Legal issues regarding title to and/or possession of real property can emerge in several different ways. One of the most common is the result of confusion or conflict between parties over who has legal title to a piece of property. Failure to properly record a land transfer, transfer of the same land made to different parties at different times, and fraudulent transfers made by non-owners can all result in some type of litigation.
Other disputes that may result in a lawsuit include:
- Boundary disputes. Adjacent property owners often disagree on where one’s property ends and the other’s begins. Courts will look at the title records and professional survey reports to solve these conflicts.
- Land use and zoning disputes. There are also disagreements over who has access to the land and for what purpose. For example, a piece of property may direct usage for agricultural development, or list what activities the property may not be used for, such as multi-family housing. Local authorities may do this through zoning laws. Parties may also disagree over the scope and access to non-possessory rights like easements.
- Estate and probate disputes. When a piece of real property is part of a deceased person’s estate, conflict may arise over which heirs have an ownership right, and if one trumps another’s. These disputes may be solved through a forced sale, or outright ownership to an heir or heirs depending on the will, estate planning documents, and probate law in the state.
- Adverse possession claims. An adverse possession claim is when a person with no legal ownership rights to a piece of property nonetheless physically occupies and uses that land. The real owners have a certain number of years to evict that person, and if they fail to do so in a timely manner, the possessor may be given full legal title by the court. Every state has different laws regarding adverse possession claims.
- Defective title. Most titles do have some sort of defect, especially when it comes to single family housing (mortgage, utility easements, etc.) Most of the time, the buyer is willing to accept certain title defects, but a lack of disclosure may lead to a delay in sale.
How Do You Solve Title Issues/Disputes?
Most of these issues are solved by filing a lawsuit known in most places as a quiet title action, which is filed in the proper county court. The court will look at title history including recorded encumbrances, past deeds, current documents, and anything else attached to the property. The goal is to resolve any title issues, award ownership to a party or parties, or clear/confirm any attached encumbrances. This may mean a sale can go forward as originally planned, but can also result in a forced sale, or one party paying monetary damages to another.
Of course, any person with an interest in a piece of property has a certain amount of time to file their lawsuit, known as a statute of limitations. And unlike personal injury lawsuits that must be filed within a few years, quiet title actions usually have a longer statute of limitations. Depending on the state and the circumstances, this is often between 10 and 20 years.
Do I Need a Lawyer for a Land Title Dispute?
Legal issues surrounding real property are complex, so if you find yourself in a dispute over title or other issues, you need the assistance of a real estate lawyer. Every state’s laws are different, and if a case is improperly handled it can result in financial damage and even the loss of ownership rights. An experienced real estate attorney can represent you in negotiations, litigation, and every proceeding in between, and make sure that your interests are well-represented.