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When more than one person claims ownership of a property, a quiet title action can help settle the dispute. A quiet title action is a legal proceeding to decide the lawful ownership of a property.
This legal action may be your best bet if there is a conflict on the title to your property. You'll want a clean title before you sell your home or transfer it during probate in order to help safeguard it from others who might make ownership claims. Here's a quick guide to help you understand quiet title action and why you might file one when selling your home.
What Is a Quiet Title Action?
A property title is simply a legal document that establishes legal ownership of a property and details specific property rights, including your right to sell or transfer it.
If someone else claims a right to the property, the title is "cloudy." For example, your title may face disputes from lienholders, squatters or a neighbor disputing the property's boundaries. In this case, you may silence any objections by "quieting the title."
A quiet title action can remove the clouds, so you're left with a clean title and all the rights that come along with it. These privileges are called the "bundle of rights," and they include:
- The right of possession
- The right to control the property
- The right to use the property
- The right to transfer the property to another party through a sale, gift or inheritance
- The right to use the property as collateral
Once a title is clean, the legal owner of the property is definitively established, which makes it more difficult for any parties to challenge that ownership.
When Might You File a Quiet Title Action?
A title dispute can arise for a wide array of reasons, such as:
- Estate sales: You could end up with a title dispute on your hands if you purchase a property at an estate sale and the seller's family members dispute the sale believing they have an ownership right to the property.
- Removing lienholders: If there is a lien on your property you believe is unwarranted, you could air your case in court through a quiet title action. Likewise, the suit calls for any lienholder to justify their lien in court. If they fail to appear or a judge rules in your favor, the court will throw out the lien.
- Breaks in the chain of title: The chain of title is a record of each person who owned the property and the dates when the title changed ownership to the next owner. Typically, the chain of title shows continuous ownership, even if there are multiple owners over time. However, if there is a period where it is unknown who owned the property, you could file a quiet title action to bring the matter to court. The defendants must respond to the lawsuit by the designated deadline; otherwise, the court will grant you the quiet title.
- Quit claim deeds: A quit claim deed is a method of transferring property whereby the owner relinquishes their legal right to the property. For example, many families use quit claim deeds to transfer property to another family member. However, a quit claim deed leaves you short on protections if someone else claims a right to the property. In that case, you could file a quiet title action to remove any clouds from the title. If you receive a property through a quit claim deed, consider protecting yourself with title insurance.
- Adverse possession, aka "squatter's rights": Adverse possession, also known as squatter's rights, is when someone lives on your property without your permission. These squatters may claim a legal right to the property if they live there for a specific length of time, which varies by state. For example, a squatter may claim ownership of a property by occupying it for five years in California or 18 years in Colorado.
- Easement and boundary disputes: Besides property ownership, quiet title actions can settle other title disputes, such as property access and legal boundaries. For example, someone can claim a right to access your property if you share a driveway or they have to drive across a portion of your land to get to their home. If they have a longstanding custom of using your property for a specific purpose, they can claim a right to continue doing so, even if you don't have a written agreement. Additionally, a quiet title action can settle a dispute with a neighbor over property lines.
How Do You File a Quiet Title Action?
If you want to claim ownership of a home or property over all other claimants, you must file a quiet claim action in a court of law. The procedure and timeline vary by state, but typically the process can last eight to 12 weeks and involve the following four steps:
1. Get a Copy of the Deed
You'll need a copy of the deed to show the title transferred to you. You can obtain a copy of the deed at your local county recorder's office.
2. Investigate the Ownership and Title
Remember, a judge will only grant your quiet title action on a property if you have evidence proving you're the legal owner. As such, you'll need to do some research specifically to identify the current state of property ownership.
Generally, you can find county land records online. However, going through the title company may save time and simplify the process. Ask the title company for a title commitment or title requirement that explains any problems that need to be fixed on the title.
You can get a basic title report for around $100. For a price ranging from $600 to $1,200, the title company will provide a thorough title commitment with insurance.
3. File a Quiet Title Complaint
Typically, an attorney will file an action to quiet the title. You are the plaintiff in this case, since you are the person filing the lawsuit to claim property ownership. The defendants are other persons or parties asserting an ownership claim.
You'll need to include the names of the other parties in the suit. Remember, any court order is not binding if the parties listed in the suit are not legally notified according to the law in your state. Typically, the service of process can be a private process server, or notification can be sent by certified mail, but double check your state's requirements.
4. Obtain a Final Judgment
During the court proceeding, the judge will hear arguments from you and the defendants and issue a final judgment. A decision in your favor will stamp out any future claims against ownership from the defendants. Conversely, the property rights can transfer to the defendants if the judge believes there is more evidence to support their right to ownership.
You may win a default judgment if the defendant fails to respond to the lawsuit by the required deadline after they are served.
The Bottom Line
Whether you're establishing ownership versus a squatter, disputing property lines with a neighbor or buying a property with a clouded title, a quiet title action may legally establish you as the rightful owner.
A successful quiet title action may depend on how well you adhere to the process requirements in your area. With so much on the line, hiring a reputable real estate attorney may make sense.