There are few things more valuable in the world than owning land. Real estate can be used by the owner to live upon or utilized as a capital asset to generate additional income. It can be retained for the lifetime of the owner and passed on to his heirs and devisees for generations to come. The owner can use the real property for any purpose that he or she sees fit. A person who has a valid legal claim in Michigan to owning a parcel of real property generally possesses a deed or similar written instrument that conveys ownership. Any person in Michigan can go to the county register of deeds office and look up the chain of ownership for virtually any parcel of real property within the county limits.
However, the issue of who owns a piece of land is not always simple or straightforward. Even if someone possesses a deed, there may still be valid legal claims to the land by other persons which can serve to cloud the title. Here are some reasons why property ownership may be unclear:
- Deed Was Forged: In Michigan, it is a felony to falsely make, alter, forge, or counterfeit a deed that affects an interest in real property and it is punishable by up to 14 years in state prison. After a conviction, the circuit is required to “enter an order stating that the false, altered, forged, or counterfeit document is invalid and require that a certified copy of the court order with the invalid document, if not previously recorded, be attached and recorded in the office of the register of deeds of the county where the subject property or part of the property is located.” MCL 750.248b. Title to the property may be contested by the victims of the forgery and any persons who later acquired purported title to the property passing from the forged title.
- Deed Was Legally Invalid: A deed may be the product of mental incapacity, undue influence, fraudulent misrepresentation, coercion or duress and subject to litigation to others claiming title to the property. A person with proper standing can challenge the deed anytime within the statute of limitations of 15 years. MCL 600.5801(4).
- Quitclaim Deed: A quitclaim deed is used to transfer interest in the property where the grantor “quits” any right he or she may have but does not convey along with a covenant or guarantee that the title is valid (unlike a warranty deed). For example, a person who acquires real property from a tax foreclosure sale will be granted a quit claim deed from the county treasurer. If the new owner later attempts to sell the foreclosed property, he or she may have trouble acquiring title insurance unless the potential claims of the previous owner foreclosed upon are legally extinguished.
- Adverse Possession: In Michigan, a person may be able to acquire title and possession of real estate from the true owner by openly using and occupying it for a specific number of years. “To establish adverse possession, the party claiming it must show clear and cogent proof of possession that is actual, visible, open, notorious, exclusive, continuous and uninterrupted for the statutory period of 15 years, hostile and under cover of claim of right.” Beach v Twp of Lima, 489 Mich 99, 106; 802 NW2d 1 (2011). “The 15-year period begins when the rightful owner has been disseised of the land.” Canjar v Cole, 283 Mich App 723, 731; 770 NW2d 449 (2009). “Disseisin occurs [for purposes of an adverse possession claim,] when the true owner is deprived of possession or displaced by someone exercising the powers and privileges of ownership.” Kipka v Fountain, 198 Mich App 435, 439; 499 NW2d 363 (1993).
To eliminate these potential claims (even If no one has actually come forward to exercise the claim), an action to quiet title may be appropriate. In Michigan, “[a]ny person, whether he is in possession of the land in question or not, who claims any right in, title to, equitable title to, interest in, or right to possession of land, may bring an action in the circuit courts against any other person who claims or might claim any interest inconsistent with the interest claimed by the plaintiff, whether the defendant is in possession of the land or not.” MCL 600.2932(1). A party does not have any standing in a quiet title action unless there is a legally protected interest in jeopardy of being adversely affected. For example, a mortgagor has no standing in a quiet title action after the property was foreclosed by the mortgagee and the redemption period expired. Bryan v JPMorgan Chase Bank, 304 Mich App 708, 715; 848 NW2d 482 (2014). Likewise, a mortgagee/lender does not have the right to bring a quiet title action unless his or her title to the mortgaged premises has become absolute. MCL 600.2932(2).
A complaint for a quiet title action must contain the following:
- “The complaint must describe the land in question with reasonable certainty by stating the section, township, and range of the premises; the number of the block and lot of the premises; or another description of the premises sufficiently clear so that the premises may be identified.” MCR 3.411(B)(1).
- “The complaint must allege the interest the plaintiff claims in the premises; the interest the defendant claims in the premises; and the facts establishing the superiority of the plaintiff’s claim.” MCR 3.411(B)(2).
- “The plaintiff must attach to the complaint, and the defendant must attach to the answer, a statement of the title on which the pleader relies, showing from whom the title was obtained and the page and book where it appears of record.” MCR 3.411(C)(2). “Written evidence of title may not be introduced at trial unless it has been sufficiently referred to in the pleadings in accordance with this rule.” MCR 3.411(C)(1).
Actions for quiet title are equitable in nature, so there are no juries permitted. MCL 600.2932(5). “After evidence has been taken, the court shall make findings determining the disputed rights in and title to the premises.” MCR 3.411(D)(1). “If a party not in possession of the premises is found to have had a right to possession at the time the action was commenced, but that right expired before the trial, that party must prove the damages sustained because the premises were wrongfully withheld, and the court shall enter judgment in the amount proved.” MCR 3.411(D)(2). “If the plaintiff established his title to the lands, the defendant shall be ordered to release to the plaintiff all claims thereto. In an appropriate case the court may issue a writ of possession or restitution to the sheriff or other proper officer of any county in this state in which the premises recovered are situated.” MCL 600.2932(3).
“Except for title acquired by adverse possession, the judgment determining a claim to title, equitable title, right to possession, or other interests in lands under this rule, determines only the rights and interests of the known and unknown persons who are parties to the action, and of persons claiming through those parties by title accruing after the commencement of the action.” MCR 3.411(H). A judgment for quiet title is binding ONLY against those defendants that were named as parties in the action. In some cases, where named defendants have already died, it may be necessary to serve all of the decedent’s heirs and assignees at law. Notice of the proceedings may have to be published in the local newspapers where the decedent died, or where heirs are anticipated to live. The most difficult task in a quiet title action may be locating everyone that needs to be incorporated into the judgment.
A skilled lawyer can advise you whether a quiet title action is necessary under the circumstances and ensure all of the necessary procedures are followed to get the appropriate result. If you have any questions about property law or need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.