Under the law, real estate ownership may be collective or private. Real estate is a valuable and lasting asset to the person who owns it, benefiting an individual and the individual’s heirs for generations to come.
One of the benefits of owning property is that an individual is able to do whatever he or she wants with the property rights. The individual can grant all of the property to another individual. They can grant all the property to a group of individuals or grant the property to a person to use for life. The possibilities go on and on.
An individual who has a valid legal claim to the ownership of real estate is entitled to exercise property rights over it. They will usually have a title granting ownership and an associated “bundle of rights.” Title will often be in the form of a deed or a written document conveying ownership.
Unfortunately, property ownership is not always simple and straightforward. Occasionally problems arise that significantly affect the land and confuses the true ownership of the land. Sometimes there is a question of ownership due to unclear or unrecorded property conveyances. Other times, problems can arise when co-owners, who own a single piece of property together, have a dispute as to the proper use of that piece of property.
What begins as clear cut ownership can quickly become a messy question of who exactly is entitled to a certain piece of real estate. Common culprits behind ownership complications include:
- Unclear wills (unclear as to who gets the land or what land is conveyed)
- Problems regarding proper purchase of land
- Failures to properly record the transfer of land
When there is a dispute as to who has a legal claim to the property rights of a certain piece of land, legal action sometimes needs to be taken to settle the dispute.
Action to Quiet Title
An action to quiet title is an action brought in to “quiet” competing claims to a property. It definitively settles the question of ownership of a specific piece of real estate. The circumstances that give rise to the need for an action to quiet title include:
- Forged deeds
- Deeds granted under coercion
- An ambiguous quitclaim deed – When a quitclaim deed is used to transfer interest in a property, the grantor “quits” any right to the property. If the quitclaim deed is ambiguous, it can caused problems. This can occur when a deed is not conveyed along with a title covenant, or a guarantee as to the validity of the title.
- Adverse possession – This occurs when an individual gains legal rights by the actual, nonpermissive, exclusive, adverse, continuous, open and notorious use of the land for a number of years.
An action for quiet title is appropriate when the potential exists for other individuals to make a claim for the land in question, even if no one has yet come forward to exercise this claim. Notice is given to all who might have a claim to the property before the court quiets the title brought before it.
The elements for an action to quiet title vary from state to state, but in Colorado, courts have broad discretion over actions to quiet title. But even with this discretion, there are parameters that guide the courts. In Colorado, the courts are limited to hearing actions to quiet title that have occurred within six years of the lawsuit coming before the court.
Additionally, under Colorado law, courts are required to completely resolve competing claims for property and to hand down a final determination as to who owns the property. For this reason, actions to quiet title are useful, as they resolve any doubt surrounding the ownership and control of a particular piece of property. To bring an action to quiet title, Colorado law requires that the individual bringing the suit file a short and plain statement showing that he or she is entitled to relief. This short statement is usually just a short list of the facts of the case.
Co-Ownership of Real Estate
Sometimes, several people or entities own a single piece of property jointly. For example, a timeshare is a piece of property that individuals share and use for a select portion of the year. Problems that arise in situations of co-ownership are normally not battles over who actually owns the property since it is established that all involved “own” the property. Here, the parties encounter difficulty when there are disagreements as to the use of the property. For example, co-owners sometimes disagree as to how much time each owner should have use of the property, or how the property should be maintained.
Often disputes are resolved via negotiation; however, sometimes parties will encounter an irreconcilable disagreement. At that point, the co-owners need to seek to divide or sell the property.
Partition actions arise when multiple individuals who own the same piece of land reach an irreconcilable difference regarding the use of the land. Any co-owner can bring an action to partition land.
When dividing land, the court has a few options:
- Divide the property equally between all owners—so instead of one big piece of property, the co-owners will all receive a chunk of the property to which they will have complete, sole ownership
- Give all the property to one owner and require that owner to pay the other owners for the interest the other owners have in the property
- Sell the property and divide the profit between the owners.
Generally, a court will attempt to divide the property between all of the owners when this is a reasonable and just solution. Sale of the land is generally only resorted to when it is impossible to divide the property equally or if sale is what the owners want.
In Colorado, land is often considered to be unique and money is therefore often an inadequate substitution. But it is only after it has been shown that dividing the property will result in “manifest prejudice” to one of the parties that the property will be sold, and the proceeds split. This manifest prejudice simply means that the physical characteristics of the land make its division impractical, or that the value of the entire piece of land is greater than the sum of its parts. Strained relationships between parties for example, would not be enough to constitute this prejudice. Some situations which would qualify as implicating this manifest prejudice include:
- The sale of narrow strips of land used as landing strips where land would be unusable if divided.
- The sale of lots which are covered completely by a building, such as a shopping mall.
- The sale of land which would result in parcels that violate zoning ordinances.
Other considerations include whether unusual features of the land make division impractical, or if partition of the land will reduce the land’s total value.
As property rights affect everyone, disputes can be particularly disruptive. Swift resolution is often the best way to avoid an unnecessary waste of time and money. A knowledgeable property rights attorney is often the best option to help quickly and efficiently settle these kinds of disputes. They can help land owners to understand their legal options and to take the necessary steps to settle a disagreement.
If you need to quiet title or partition real estate in Colorado the attorneys at Robinson & Henry are experienced and can help. We have years of experience in all sorts of real estate transactions and have helped owners settle disputes when the parties cannot reach a mutual agreement. Contact us for a free, no obligation case assessment at (303) 688-0944.