In the world of real estate law, owning the “title” to a property means you are the rightful owner of that property, to live on or sell as you choose. Sometimes, though, ownership is not as straightforward as you might expect. Disputes about who actually owns the title, and, therefore, the property can arise.
When this happens, the person who is having their ownership disputed may need to take action legally in order to end the dispute and reestablish their right to the title. Such a legal action is referred to as an action to “quiet title.” The dispute typically arises because another party has reason to believe they also have a claim on the property.
Therefore, when a court of law considers a quiet title lawsuit (brought by the person whose ownership is being disputed), the point is to remove the other party’s claim so that the title is once again free and clear. The dispute to the title may be referred to as a “cloud” on the title, or a title defect.
The types of situations where a second party believes they have a right to a property, and disputes the actual title holder’s rights, often occur when family members or co-owners disagree over whether the title was properly conveyed to a new owner from the prior owner. This could happen for a variety of legal reasons, which will be explored in the next section.
If there is an encumbrance, or “cloud” on the title, it likely has something to do with a legal impropriety related to the title document. Some examples of these types of legal issues are as follows. There may be:
- An issue with the property being described incorrectly on the title document (for instance, maybe the boundaries of the land weren’t recorded correctly).
- A long-standing easement on the property that wasn’t recorded on the title document.
- Issues with property taxes, wherein the city claims the new owner’s title is not sound because back taxes are owed.
- Problems because the title was conveyed to the new owner under duress or through other fraudulent means.
- Some other type of problem with recording the title properly, such as failing to note an old lease on the property.
An action to quiet title is brought a title holder who is having their claim to the title disputed by someone else who claims also to have rights to the title and property. The title holder brings suit in court in order to have the disputing party’s claim resolved, so they can regain a dispute-free title.
Of course, while the title owner hopes to have the dispute resolved, the court will determine who the actual property owner is based on all the evidence, so it is possible that either party could end up with title to the property.
The title owner should follow the steps below in order to initiate an action to quiet title:
- First, they should check records and determine the exact boundaries and description of their property, in order to be sure they understand what they own and why there might be a dispute;
- Then, they should file a complaint for an action to quiet title in the appropriate court in their jurisdiction;
- The complaint should describe the title owner’s claim to the property;
- It should also describe the nature of the dispute(s) to the title, which necessitate the quiet title action;
- The complaint should name any parties who are disputing the title, and describe why they are doing so (based on what evidence); and
- Finally, the complaint should give notice and be served to any persons who are party to the action to quiet title.
The court will only approve the property owner’s action to quiet title if the evidence shows that they are actually the legal owner of the property, based on all of the evidence presented to the court. If this happens, then the party who brought the lawsuit can walk away with a clear title.
However, if the court determines that other parties have the legal right to the title, it will transfer the good title to the property party. Regardless, any result should be recorded with the county in which the action occurs, so that it will be public record, and further disputes may be avoided.
The quiet title legal process can take up to six months, although it may take much less time, but it depends on the complexity of the case, and on the jurisdiction in which the action is brought.
Property disputes can easily lead to lawsuits, so it may be in your best interests to contact a real estate attorney if you have a title in dispute. A real estate attorney can explore your title and determine whether you have a good claim to it, and represent you in court, if necessary.