Articles Posted in Title and Ownership

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In many situations, property owners must pursue judicial action to determine their rights in real estate matters.  In a March 23, 2017 case, the Massachusetts Land Court resolved a boundary dispute between the owners of adjacent properties.  The area in dispute was a portion of the plaintiffs’ driveway, which ran parallel along the shared boundary line.  Both parties relied on surveys they obtained to prove ownership of the disputed area.  Unable to resolve their dispute out of court, the parties sought a determination from the land court regarding the true common boundary line of the properties. driveway

In June 2003, the plaintiff paved over his gravel driveway against an existing piece of rebar, located on what he believed was the common boundary line.  Once the asphalt was laid, the plaintiff did not take any measurements or verify whether the new driveway was in a different location from the gravel driveway, closer to the defendants’ property.  Believing that the paved driveway encroached upon their property, the defendants hired a surveyor to research and prepare a plan determining the location and dimensions of their property.

In 2005, the defendants approached the plaintiffs and asked if they could execute a document acknowledging the defendants’ determination of the property line.  The letter also gave permission to the plaintiffs to use the encroaching sections, such as the driveway and the mailbox areas, as long as they confirmed the location of the shared boundary based on their survey. The plaintiffs declined to sign the letter and, believing that the survey was incorrect, retained the services of another company to investigate and make a determination of the boundary line.

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Latent disagreements regarding property lines often come to a head when one party constructs a fence along his or her purported boundary. In a March 27, 2017 decision, the Massachusetts Land Court settled a real estate dispute between two neighbors. The plaintiff brought a claim of trespass against the owner of the adjoining property, alleging that his fence encroached on her property and seeking injunctive relief requiring the removal of the fence. The defendant asserted that the fence was within the boundary of his property.fence

To determine the correct boundary line, the Land Court reviewed the deeds that originally conveyed the parties’ respective properties. The court found that the 1953 deed conveying land to the plaintiff’s predecessor contained a description of the property that included the disputed area. However, the court noted that although the grantor included such language in the deed description, if an ambiguity is found within the deed, parol evidence may be introduced to determine the rights granted or the area conveyed. The court went on to explain that when, as here, the deed’s description relies on physical monuments and their location on the ground, they must be considered when discerning the true meaning of the instrument. Due to the failure to find the monuments on the ground as they are described in the deed, the court concluded the 1953 deed was ambiguous.

In Massachusetts, any competent evidence may be considered in determining the true boundary line between adjoining owners. Generally, monuments control, rather than the distances set out in the deeds. Over the plaintiff’s objection, the Land Court accepted the findings of the defendant’s surveyor, who found the three monuments referenced in the 1953 deed. These monuments consisted of a stone bound and two iron pipes located in separate corners of the plaintiff’s property. The court held that the monuments marked three corners of the plaintiff’s parcel, and the distances between these monuments on the ground controlled over the distances recited in the deeds.

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Property conveyances are typically complex, and errors or ambiguities in the deed can lead to litigation years into the future.  This point is demonstrated in a recent case, Powell v. Ashley (Mass. Land Ct. Nov. 21, 2016), which concerns a 1973 deed that became the source of a years-long dispute between neighbors.house

In Powell, the defendants recorded a deed conveying the garage located on their property to the previous owners of the plaintiffs’ property in 1979.  The conveyance was problematic.  The deed was dated 1973, but the notary public’s commission indicated that the earliest it could have been witnessed was 1977.  The deed also lacked a metes and bounds description and was subject to an existing mortgage.  In addition, the previous owners lost their property through a foreclosure in 1978, and the property was sold a week before the deed was recorded.  Thereafter, the defendants resumed occupation and use of the garage.

In 2003, the plaintiffs brought an action in Land Court, seeking a declaration that they were the record owners of the garage, free of the defendants’ claims of record ownership and ownership by adverse possession.  While that litigation was ongoing, the plaintiffs also commenced an action in the Housing Court against the defendants.  After a hearing, the Housing Court entered judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor regarding record ownership of the garage.  The Land Court concluded that the Housing Court’s ruling was binding in the Land Court action on the basis of res judicata, a legal principle that prohibits parties from re-litigating the same issue.  The Land Court also held that since the defendants did not raise the defense of adverse possession in the Housing Court action, they were barred from arguing it in the present case.

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The Massachusetts Land Court recently decided an interesting legal issue regarding the impact of a judgment execution on joint tenancy ownership in McHugh v. Zanfardino (Mass. Land Ct. Dec. 14, 2016). The question to be answered in the quiet title action was whether the recording of an execution by a judgment creditor severs the joint tenancy of the owners of the subject property, thus converting their ownership into a tenancy in common and defeating one co-owner’s right of survivorship upon the death of the other.building

In McHugh, the plaintiff commenced an action seeking to quiet title to two condominium units, which she claimed to have held in joint tenancy with the decedent. She argued that upon his death, she became sole owner of the properties by right of survivorship. The decedent’s heirs, however, claimed that the plaintiff and decedent were tenants in common, and the decedent’s share of the units passed to his heirs upon his death.

In reaching its decision, the land court analyzed G.L. c. 236, § 12, the statute governing the effect of a levy of execution on property owned by either joint tenants or tenants in common. The statute provides that if land is held by a debtor in joint tenancy, the share belonging to the debtor may be taken on execution, and it is thereafter held in common with the co-tenant. Although the parties agreed that a joint tenancy terminates at the point that the land is taken on execution, they disputed the meaning of “taken on execution.” The plaintiff argued that the levy process must be completed (i.e., after the property has been appraised and sold) before converting to a tenancy in common, while the defendants argued that the beginning of the levy and the recording of the execution severs the joint tenancy.

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If a record title of property is clouded by an adverse claim, or even the possibility of one, the property owner may “try title” by filing a petition with the court and requesting that it summon any adverse claimants. In the case of Blakeman v. Cellini (Mass. Land Ct. Nov. 23, 2016), both parties claimed ownership of a small rectangular parcel of land, depicted as a 40-foot water easement on a recorded plan. The plaintiffs initiated a try title action, seeking to establish ownership of a disputed area. The defendants filed a counterclaim to try title as well, and they also claimed title by adverse possession if the plaintiffs were found to be the record owners of the area.pen and paper

A try-title action allows a party in possession claiming title to property to compel an adverse claimant to prove the merits of the adverse claimant’s interest in the property. Once the plaintiff satisfies the jurisdiction elements of the statute, the adverse claimant must either bring an action asserting claim of title or disclaim an interest in the property. When both parties assert title, as in Blakeman, the court may convert their respective claims to an action for declaratory judgment, in which the court will rule on who has record title to the area in dispute.

In Blakeman, the deed conveying the defendants’ property contained a metes and bounds description of their lot, as well as a reference to a recorded plan on which the lot was shown. The metes and bounds description did not include the disputed area as within their property. The recorded plan, however, did show the disputed area as part of their lot rather than as a separate, distinct parcel. The question before the Land Court was which description prevails.

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