Massachusetts Appeals Court Grapples with Antiquated Deed Language to Determine Property Rights

Ownership disputes can arise years after property was purchased or originally deeded. Speaking to this issue, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts released an opinion in the case of Knapp v. Powicki (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 29, 2016).  Knapp concerned the ownership and easement rights over a proposed street located between two abutting lots conveyed decades ago.

The property was originally a large lot of farmland owned by the grantor. In 1926, the grantor constructed a house on one section, known as 95 Coolidge, the frontage of which contained the proposed street at issue. In 1933, the grantor created a second lot, 99 Coolidge, which the defendants currently own. In 1963, another lot, known as 111 Coolidge, was created and eventually conveyed to the plaintiffs. The proposed way runs between these two lots.

Over the years, the descriptions of the land and the proposed way changed in the deeds, which were not as careful as the original. At the time the deeds were executed, the language used would have been enough to demonstrate the grantor’s intent to retain ownership of the street and rebut any presumption that it passed to the buyer of the lot. However, in 1971, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted the derelict fee statute, which strengthened the common law presumption that a deed bounding on a way conveys title to the center of the way if the grantor owns it. The statute applied retroactively unless the title holder or predecessor changed position as a result of a court decision. Interpreting the current description in the deed, there were no words of reservation as required by the statute.

On appeal, the court found that the lower court correctly concluded that both the defendants and the plaintiffs have rights in a portion of the way, since their respective properties are bounded by the way. Although the description in the deed did not contain the language required by the statute, the defendants’ ownership includes the full length of the way where the grantor owned no land in common with the plaintiffs’ lot. The statute, however, does not control the easement rights of the owners of the other portions of the lots. The court explained that when a grantor conveys land bounded by a street or way, subsequent owners may not deny its existence, since the rights conveyed are throughout the entire length of the proposed street. As an abutter of land commonly derived, therefore, the plaintiffs maintained an easement over the way at issue. Accordingly, the court held that as a matter of law, the plaintiffs have an easement over the proposed way by estoppel.

Consulting with a real estate lawyer can be advantageous if you are concerned about your property rights. At Pulgini & Norton, our Massachusetts land use attorneys provide important advice to individuals on a variety of legal matters, including easements, adverse possession, mortgages, home closings, building permits, and more. To consult with one of our dedicated lawyers, contact Pulgini & Norton at (781) 843-2200 or online and schedule your consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Appeals Court Sides with Property Owner in Case Against Town Over Easement Rights, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published August 22, 2016

Massachusetts Homeowners Win Breach of Contract Claim Against Corporation in Property Dispute, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published September 5, 2016

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