If you own a house or other real estate, how do you know that you own it? You were probably present at the closing, and you were handed a deed. You probably never questioned whether the deed was valid, and if it was a warranty deed, it almost certainly was. That is because, prior to the closing, someone (likely a title company or real estate attorney) made the effort to confirm that the person selling or transferring the property to you had the legal right to do so, and that the person who transferred the property to them had the right to do so, and so on. This is called establishing a “chain of title.”
It’s important to establish a chain of title because without one, unscrupulous people could claim ownership to property and sell it to unsuspecting purchasers. This could result in multiple parties claiming that they were the true owners of the property. Even if all parties are acting in good faith, however, it is important to confirm the chain of title to a piece of property.
For instance, an interest in real property may be transferred by a quitclaim deed. A person who executes a quitclaim deed is giving up any claim they may have to the property—but not promising that the title is clear and that no one else has a legal interest in the property. “Quieting title” eliminates the possibility of other claims against property when the chain of title is unclear.
A lawsuit to quiet title is also, somewhat poetically, referred to as “removing a cloud” on the title. A cloud need not be a claim of full ownership of the property. There may be a lien against the property, such as for unpaid back taxes or a debt owed to a contractor who worked on the property.
There are a number of situations in which it might be necessary to quiet title. As mentioned above, the prevalence of quitclaim deeds, which are easy and convenient, means that the transferee of a property has not received a pledge that the title is clear. If a person purchases or otherwise acquires property by quitclaim deed, they should take action to quiet title as soon as possible.
Quiet title actions may be called for when a piece of real property is purchased from the estate of a deceased person. It is possible that one or more heirs with an interest in the property was not properly notified of the sale, and they may still claim an interest in the property.
It may also be necessary to quiet title in the case of boundary disputes; two landowners with adjoining parcels may be uncertain where one’s land begins and the other’s ends. Adverse possession is another circumstance in which a quiet title action may be necessary. In an adverse possession scenario, a party openly occupies a piece of property that doesn’t belong to them—trespassing, in fact, whether or not they realize it. After a certain period of time, if their occupancy is not challenged, they can get legal ownership of the property, which can be established by a quiet title action.
In short, any time a person or entity needs to establish that no one else has a legal claim to a piece of land or the buildings on it, a quiet title action may be appropriate.
Quiet title actions are filed in the district court for the county in which the real property in question is located. The party seeking to quiet title (plaintiff) files a complaint describing the premises and the extent and nature of the plaintiff’s interest in it. Because a quiet title action establishes or confirms the legal rights of one party, and extinguishes the rights of all others, it is essential that there be proper notice to all interested parties. That’s simple enough in the case of a dispute between two neighbors over a property boundary.
It gets more complicated in the case of a purchaser of property who wants to be sure that nobody “out there” has a legal claim to the property. In that case, the plaintiff must diligently try to identify, locate, and notify all known adverse parties (defendants). Possible defendants include heirs of known defendants who might be deceased.
An experienced New Mexico real estate attorney can prepare a quiet title complaint that meets legal requirements, and ensure that proper notice is given to interested parties. If a defendant is given proper notice but does not appear at a court hearing on the complaint, their claims will be barred by the court.
If you are not certain that the title of property you have an interest in is clear, you may want to consider filing a quiet title action. We invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation and discuss your options.
© 2020 The Law Offices of Dana M. Kyle, P.A.