Problems with Title to Real Property
When the title to (ownership of) real property is not clear, the property may be considered to have a cloud on title. As one example, there are currently 12 parcels of land on the assessment rolls of Napa County that are shown as having Unknown Owners. Other parcels may have title problems because they are in the names of people without current addresses or who are deceased without any information about their heirs.
How Problems Happen
Title problems may arise in several ways. The most common is that a deed or court judgment granting title to a parcel or parcels fails to include the legal description for a portion of a parcel or an entire parcel meant to be transferred by that document. Because the portion or parcel is not described in the document, the remainder is left in the name of the seller or decedent without title transferring. The assessor is required to show that remainder as a separate parcel because the ownership is different from the part that did transfer.
A public road relocation may also lead to separation of ownership of a portion of a parcel from the primary owner when, over time, the physically, but not legally severed, portion is left out of subsequent deeds.
Title problems are not easy to correct, which is why most buyers and sellers use title companies to handle their transactions.
When a title problem is uncovered, there are a number of ways to attempt to correct the problem. The usual first step is to ask a title company to search the official records to see how the title problem arose. If no prior owner can be found from whom title can be cleared by purchase, the next step may be to initiate proceedings to obtain title through the courts. This process is known as "quieting title" and is often complicated, difficult and expensive. Quieting title may require proof of such matters as payment of outstanding taxes and/or open and hostile possession and occupancy of the property for five successive years. Such actions can expose the person attempting to quiet title to risks of litigation from other claimants to the property.
The requirements of a quiet title action in Superior Court are outside the scope of this article but usually include the publication of notices that a claim has been filed for a certain parcel, in order to give other claimants to the property an opportunity to be heard in the action. At the conclusion of a successful quiet title action, the court grants title to the prevailing party, thereby "quieting title" to the property. This court order or a deed based on the order must be recorded with the County Recorder in order to give constructive notice of the newly established title. Anyone who attempts to gain possession of property with a problem title needs to consult legal and title professionals.
While these articles are not meant to contain legal advice, the author acknowledges the assistance of Paul Carey, Esquire.