Articles Posted in Title and Ownership

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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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When the ownership or right to use a road is in dispute, the issue may need to be settled by a court of law. An August 30, 2017 Massachusetts real estate case illustrates a controversy between a homeowner and the town concerning the status of a roadway. The plaintiff sought a judgment that a portion of the roadway was a private way for the use of himself and a neighboring homeowner, but not the public at large. The town denied that the section of the roadway was private, and asserted that it was a public way pursuant to a plan designating it as such, which was filed in connection with a registration petition for the plaintiff’s property by the previous owner.road-to-dreams-1557734-640x480-300x225

The issue before the Land Court, therefore, was whether the section of roadway was a private or public way. As the party asserting the public way, the burden was on the town to prove its claim that the section of roadway at issue was public. In Massachusetts, a private way is not public unless it has become so by one of the following ways: (1) a laying out by public authority in the manner prescribed by statute; (2) prescription; or (3) prior to 1846, a dedication by the owner to the public use, permanent and unequivocal, coupled with an express or implied acceptance by the public.

In the case, the town conceded that the public way was not laid out according to the relevant law. The town did not produce any evidence that the roadway was a public way by prescription, nor that it was created by a dedication prior to 1846. The town solely relied on the depiction of the roadway as “public” in the registration plan as conclusive evidence on the issue, arguing that the plaintiff was precluded from asserting that it was a private way.

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In a July 7, 2017 decision, the Massachusetts Land Court addressed a real estate dispute between condominium owners over their respective rights to access certain areas of the property. The parties were unit owners in a two-unit, residential condo. The plaintiffs in the case sought to prevent the defendants from installing a fence they claimed would prevent them from accessing and using land in which they have exclusive rights. The plaintiffs also requested recognition of an implied easement by necessity over a portion of the condominium common area, which had been designated for the exclusive use of the defendants’ unit. townhouses

The land court first looked at the site plan of the master deed to determine the rights of the parties. The plan provided that the exclusive rights area for the plaintiffs’ unit included a portion of the front yard, including the parking area for that unit, and continued along the side of the condo building, narrowing where it runs parallel to the defendants’ exclusive rights area directly behind the building, and opening to the rearmost portion of the plaintiffs’ exclusive rights area at the far southern end of the property. The plan depicted the defendants’ exclusive rights area as covering the remainder of the property, including the yard area directly behind the building.

When the defendants informed the plaintiffs of their intention to remove the existing stairs and install a fence around the backyard portion of their exclusive rights area, the plaintiffs objected, asserting that the changes would prevent them from accessing their own rear yard. After reviewing the master deed, the land court concluded that the defendants were within their rights under the deed to install the fence and remove the stairs located on their exclusive area. The land court also ruled that the defendants’ actions did not violate the plaintiffs’ rights under the deed because they did not infringe on the plaintiffs’ exclusive area nor the common areas of the property.

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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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