When someone sells you a piece of property, you expect them to actually own the land they are selling. But, while this is usually the case, there are a number of circumstances that may lead to a person unknowingly or unintentionally selling a piece of real estate that they do not legally own. When this happens, it may be necessary to file a suit to quiet title.
What Does it Mean to “Quiet Title” to Real Property in South Carolina?
In South Carolina, legal ownership of a piece of real estate is determined by what is known as “title.” Unlike items that you buy at a store, in order to own a piece of real estate, you need to have a formal legal document (the “title”) that identifies you as the rightful owner. Generally speaking, the transfer of title should be a matter of formality in a residential or commercial real estate transaction. However, for a variety of reasons, title transfers do not always take place as required.
If you paid for a parcel of land and but someone is claiming that you are not the rightful owner, you may need to file a suit to quiet title. To “quiet title” means to resolve any open issues with the official transfer records for the property. The need to quiet title most-commonly arises in two scenarios—either:
- A previous owner is claiming that you do not legally own the property; or,
- A prospective buyer has identified an issue with the chain of title.
In either case, unless an alternative solution is available, it will be necessary to file a suit to quiet title in order to confirm your legal ownership of the property. A successful quiet title action will result in correction of the official record and confirm that you are the legal owner of the land in question.
When is a Suit to Quiet Title Necessary in South Carolina?
As mentioned above, there are a variety of issues that can potentially make it necessary to file a suit to quiet title. Some of the most common issues include:
1. Estate Transfers
When a person dies and leaves a piece of real estate to a family member, it is fairly common for the heir or beneficiary not to prepare the title documentation required in order to formally record the transfer. In some cases, a piece of property may pass through multiple generations without any transfers being documented on the record.
2. Divorce Transfers
This is a common issue in the divorce context as well. Under South Carolina law, any property acquired during the marriage becomes part of the spouses’ “marital estate” (regardless of name(s) listed on the title); and, when the spouses divorce, the need to divide the marital estate can create title issues that often go overlooked.
3. Other Non-Title Transfers
Non-title transfers of real estate can occur under various other circumstances as well. Even in this day and age, it is not uncommon for buyers and sellers in some areas of the state to enter into handshake deals or to prepare informal documents that do not result in title formally being transferred to the buyer.
4. Recording Errors
Administrative and clerical errors at the recording office can also result in defects in the chain of title. Unfortunately, these kinds of mistakes happen, and it can sometimes be necessary to quiet title even when all parties to a prior sale took the necessary steps to legally transfer ownership of the property.
5. Lack of Capacity
As a general principle of South Carolina law, a person cannot legally enter into a contract if he or she lacks the mental capacity necessary, “to understand in a reasonable manner the nature of the transaction in which he or she is engaging, and to understand its consequences and effect upon his or her rights and interests.” This issue can arise in various contexts, including real estate sales involving elderly owners. In many cases, the owner’s child (or children) will allege that he or she lacked the requisite mental capacity to transfer the property.
6. Survey Issues and Boundary Disputes
In some cases, surveys will provide conflicting accounts of who owns a portion of a piece of property. This can lead to ownership disputes with adjacent property owners.
7. Mortgages, Liens, and Foreclosures
Mortgages, bank liens, construction liens, and other encumbrances can give rise to conflicting ownership rights as well. Particularly in the case of older properties, foreclosures may have taken place that may or may not be reflected in the public record.
8. Technical Deficiencies
Finally, technical deficiencies with title documents can also sometimes result in ineffective ownership transfers. Issues with wording, missing signatures, and use of documents that do not comply with South Carolina law are just a few examples of issues that can result in title transfers being deemed legally unenforceable.
What are Potential Alternatives to Filing a Suit to Quiet Title?
While it may be necessary to file a suit to quiet title to resolve these kinds of issues, there are some potential alternatives available as well. Particularly if the prior owner agrees that your ownership should be reflected in the public record, filing a lawsuit may not be necessary. For example, if it is possible to clearly identify where the defect in the chain of title lies, it may an option to have the prior owner execute a quitclaim deed that absolves him or her of any legal interest in the property. In some cases, it can also be sufficient to sign an agreement that acknowledges your ownership of the real estate in question.
Contact Summerville, SC Real Estate Lawyer Patrick R. Watts
Patrick R. Watts is a real estate attorney who has been practicing in Summerville, SC for more than 40 years. If you believe that you may need to file a suit to quiet title, Mr. Watts can help you evaluate the options that you have available. To get started with a confidential initial consultation, please call 843-851-7050 or request an appointment online today.