Articles Posted in Title and Ownership

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An easement is the legal right to a particular, limited use of property by someone other than the owner of the property.  In some cases, the existence of an easement may become unclear after the property has passed down through different owners over many years.  In a February 23, 2018 opinion, the appeals court considered a Massachusetts real estate action involving the plaintiffs’ claim to a right of way easement over the defendants’ land to access a main road.desolate highway

The plaintiffs in the case owned a four-acre oceanfront parcel of land.  The first mention of the easement at issue was in a 1927 deed, through which the original grantor conveyed a portion of his land.  That portion was eventually owned by the plaintiffs.  The 1927 deed included an easement consisting of a right of way from the north side of the parcel to “Beach Road.”  The easement appeared with the same language in each subsequent deed conveying the parcel of land, but it was not precisely identified.  Through other deeds in 1927, the original grantor also conveyed the property currently owned by the defendants, which contained a way to access Beach Road.

In 1999, the plaintiffs divided their parcel into two lots and sold one of them to a third party.  However, the plaintiffs did not expressly reserve a right of way over the lot they sold.  Subsequently, a dispute arose over the location of the 1927 easement.  The plaintiffs alleged that the easement began at a point on the road that adjoins their property and crosses over the defendant’s land to meet Beach Road.  The defendants argued that the right of way began from the lot no longer owned by the plaintiffs.

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The property interests of condo unit owners are typically defined in the Master Deed.  If legal disputes arise regarding the residents’ usage of the common areas, facilities, or parking garages of their building, the Master Deed may determine the rights of the respective parties, as in a May 14, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case.  The case involved a dispute among condominium owners over parking rights.condominium

The plaintiffs in the case owned Unit One in a residential condominium containing three units.  The plaintiffs filed a complaint in the Massachusetts Land Court, seeking a declaration that they have rights to the exclusive use of two and one-half parking spaces within the condominium’s common area.  The defendants owned Unit Two in the condominium.  The defendants argued that, in accordance with the original Master Deed and Unit deeds, each unit has the right to the exclusive use of only one parking space.

In determining the rights of the parties, the land court reviewed real estate documents, including the Master Deed.  The Master Deed provided that each unit in the condominium shall have an appurtenant right to the exclusive use of one parking space to be either assigned to each unit by written designation in the initial Unit Deed for each unit, or if not assigned in the initial Unit Deed, to be assigned by the Condominium Trust.  However, none of the initial deeds in the condominium actually included an assignment of a parking space.

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Over many years, the discontinued use of a public road or way could lead to a dispute over ownership, as in a May 9, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case.  The plaintiffs filed the action in the Land Court, seeking a determination that a short, partially paved, and gravel way passing over the defendants’ properties was part of a public way, and furthermore, that it remained a public way today.  Conversely, the defendants argued that it was a private way.  To decide the issue, the Land Court looked at records of the creation of the way from 1816, when the town voted to accept a road laid out in the area of land currently owned by the defendants.field

In Massachusetts, a way is not public unless it has become so through one of three ways.  First, it may be laid out by public authority in the manner prescribed by statute.  Second, it may become a public way through prescription.  Lastly, prior to 1846, an owner could dedicate the way to public use, and upon acceptance by the public, it could become a public way.  Under the facts of the case, the area in dispute could only be a public way if it was laid out as such by the town.

Once a public way has been duly laid out, it will continue to be a public way until it is legally discontinued.  Generally, the courts will not assume that public officials have abandoned a highway easement without an act on the part of the property authority to discontinue its status as a public way.  Nor will mere non-use or apparent abandonment of a public way by a town result in the discontinuance of its public status.  In the case, there was no evidence that the disputed area was discontinued.  As a result, if it was properly laid out as a public way in 1816, it would retain that status presently.

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A deed restriction may significantly affect one’s enjoyment of their own property by prohibiting certain uses, activities, or construction.  The plaintiff in an April 26, 2018 Massachusetts land use case challenged a deed restriction imposed on her property in the Massachusetts Land Court.  She sought a declaration that some of the deed restrictions were invalid, alleging that they violated public policy by imposing an unreasonable restraint.  The defendant in the case was the City of Boston.photo_49244_20151116-300x255

In 1991, the City sold the lot to the prior owner as part of a program in which it conveyed small parcels of land to abutting Boston residents, subject to deed restrictions.  The open-space restriction required that the property be used and maintained for open space purposes, such as gardening, landscaping, and off-street residential parking.  The no-build restriction prohibited the construction or installation of structures on the lot, with only one exception for an addition to the existing dwelling on the abutting lot.  The purpose of the program and deed restrictions was to retain the public benefits of open space as well as preserving reasonable density in Boston neighborhoods.

In connection with the deed, the prior owner executed a mortgage on the property, which required the written consent of the City in order to assign it to a successive owner and secured the owner’s compliance with the restrictions.  In 2010, the City gave its consent to the conveyance of the property to the plaintiff.  The deed set forth the same restrictions but expressly provided that they were for the benefit of the City of Boston.  The plaintiff also granted a mortgage at that time, in which she agreed to the restrictions.

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After a land survey revealed new information regarding the boundary line between two lots, two Massachusetts neighbors disagreed over how to handle ownership of that area.  In an April 3, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiff filed an action in the Massachusetts Land Court asserting that she had acquired adverse possession of the area in dispute.  A two-day trial was conducted, in which the parties presented evidence to support their positions.road

The plaintiff in the case purchased her lot in 1985.  A dirt driveway was located on her lot at the time she moved in, and in 1987 she had it paved.  However, a section of the driveway, a sloped area at the bottom of the driveway, and a wooded area, all of which the plaintiff believed were on her property, in fact were encroaching on two other lots owed by another individual.  Eventually, that individual sold one of the lots to the defendants in 2007.  As soon as they moved in, the defendants began clearing and maintaining the wooded and sloped areas, apparently without knowledge of the exact boundary of their own lot and without knowledge of the existence of the second lot retained by the individual from whom they purchased their lot.

The relationship between the plaintiff and the defendants began to deteriorate after the plaintiff began the teardown and construction of her house in 2011.  Concerned about disruption from the construction, the defendants conducted some research and discovered the existence of the seller’s second lot.  The defendants reached out to the seller and acquired the second lot in 2011.  The defendants then hired a surveyor and marked the boundary of their property.  After a heated argument, the plaintiff continued construction on the property and additionally filed a claim for adverse possession of the area in dispute.

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Local municipalities are primarily responsible for the upkeep of public county roads, a duty that would be burdensome for many average residents.  For this reason, the plaintiffs in a March 12, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case sought to establish that the road bordering their property was a public way.  The plaintiffs filed an action against the town and highway superintendent, arguing that the road was a public way, thereby requiring the town to repair, maintain, and remove snow for its entire length.road

In Massachusetts, land acquires the status of a public way if it is:  (1) laid out by the public authority pursuant to statute; (2) claimed by prescription; or (3) prior to 1846, dedicated by the owner to permanent and unequivocal public use.

In the case, the plaintiffs first contended that the road at issue was laid out by public authority.  Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the road was part of another road that had been explicitly laid out by the county commissioners in 1768.  The court rejected the argument, noting that the description of the public road in the record laid out by the county commissioners did not include the direction of the road at issue.

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To succeed in a Massachusetts adverse possession claim, the claimant must prove all of the elements required to establish his or her claim to a particular portion of land.  In a January 19, 2018 case, the land court considered a claim of adverse possession by an abutting landowner and claims to confirm title initially filed by a mobile home park company and followed by a substitute petitioner.  The history of the legal proceedings made it difficult to determine whether the landowner had established continuous possession of the area for the requisite period.snow

The mobile home company had commenced the original action in 1995, seeking to confirm title.  That action remained pending until, due to a dispute concerning whether the landowner had been properly served with the petition, special notice was sent to the landowner in 2006.  The landowner filed an answer, claiming title to a portion of the land based on adverse possession.  His claim was based on acts of adverse possession beginning in 1985, after he purchased his property.  The action continued to remain pending until 2018, when it came before the land court.

In Massachusetts, adverse possession can be acquired by proof of non-permissive use that is actual, open, notorious, exclusive, and adverse for a 20-year period.  The burden is on the party claiming adverse possession to provide clear proof of each element.  In the case, the landowner alleged that he staked a perimeter around his property, which included the land at issue, when he purchased the property in 1985.  He also planted trees in that area to be sold as Christmas trees, cleared land, allowed hunters to use the property, informed others the land was his, and posted no trespassing signs.  His activities continued to the time of the land court’s decision.

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Many Massachusetts property owners will discover that their property lines were drawn hundreds of years ago, with boundaries that are not clearly described or marked in the original and successive deeds.  A Massachusetts real estate attorney can provide legal guidance regarding disputes that arise under these circumstances.  An August 18, 2017 case demonstrates this issue in a land action between a Church and local Town.cemetery

Most Massachusetts towns were chartered before church and state were separated in 1833, when towns were chartered in order to support a church congregation.  In the case, the Church was built on land conveyed in 1743.  At issue was the ownership of the land on which the adjacent cemetery was located.  The dispute arose after the Town announced its intention to move the cremains buried in one portion of the cemetery to another area in the cemetery.  The Town asserted that it has record title to the cemetery through the 1743 deed.  The Church also claimed that it holds record title pursuant to the 1743 deed, an 1899 deed, or in the alternative, through adverse possession.

Since the case involved the interpretation of conveyances in 1743 and 1899 by people who were no longer living, the parties agreed to present their arguments on a case-stated basis with the court allowed to draw appropriate inferences from only the available evidence and make its ruling.  In these types of cases, the parties agree on all of the material facts from which the judge may draw inferences.

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Boundary disputes and property ownership are often resolved in court proceedings, particularly when the party claiming possession of the land is not the title owner.  In an August 22, 2017 case, the Court of Appeals reviewed a Massachusetts title action between a landowner and the town.  The landowners brought the action against the town, seeking a declaration that they were the rightful title owners of a patch of land and way between two public roads.  The town filed a counterclaim, contending that it had a prescriptive easement.  After the Land Court ruled for the town, the landowners appealed to the higher court.fence

The area at issue consisted of a triangular parcel of land and an abutting way.  The way was paved but unnamed, and it was wide enough for two-way traffic to flow.  It provided a cut-through between two larger roads that merged at an intersection located at the tip of the triangular parcel of land.  The way was maintained by the town and had been used by the public for more than 20 years.  Although the public did not use the triangular parcel of land, the town had installed a drainage system in the triangle to channel water from the public roads, mowed the area, and removed dead trees.  The plaintiffs had not paid taxes on that area, nor had they been assessed by the town.

For a municipality in Massachusetts to acquire a prescriptive easement over land for a specific public purpose, it must demonstrate open, continuous, and notorious use for more than 20 years, as well as sufficient proof that it exercised dominion and control over the land through authorized acts of its employees to conduct or maintain a public use for the general benefit of its residents.

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Property descriptions contained in deeds that were written a century ago can be difficult to interpret, and this may eventually lead to title disputes.  In a September 27, 2017 Massachusetts real estate case, a plaintiff filed a petition with the Land Court to confirm title to an unregistered portion of property that consisted of upland and salt meadow.  The primary issue for the Land Court in the case was whether an 1886 deed on which the plaintiff relied conveyed the entirety of the area at issue, or just the salt meadow portion, leaving the upland to be conveyed by an 1894 deed to the previous owners of the defendants’ property.blue heron

The purpose of land registration proceedings is to provide a method for making titles to land certain and indefeasible.  The plaintiff in a registration petition has the burden to establish claim of title to a particular parcel of land and the correct location of that land on the ground.  The plaintiff in the case sought to establish his interest in the entire area through his record title in an 1886 deed.  The 1886 deed described the land conveyed in general terms as “a lot of salt meadow,” and it did not specify whether that area included the upland.

In Massachusetts, the rules of deed construction provide a hierarchy for interpreting descriptions in a deed:  descriptions that refer to monuments are controlling, then descriptions that use courses and distances, and lastly, descriptions by area.  The court may consider any competent evidence in determining the true boundary line between adjoining owners, including relevant extrinsic evidence bearing upon the grantor’s intent, such as the circumstances of the transaction and the subsequent actions of the parties.

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