By: Nathalie K. Salomon
To determine who owns a parcel of land, it is necessary to conduct a title examination at the registry of deeds of the county where the land lies. A title examination involves two aspects: (1) a determination of the chain of title to identify the successive deeds, from the current owner of the property back to the original owner, and (2) a review of the descriptions of the property contained in each deed. There are many ways of describing a property. It can be described by reference to monuments or courses and distances. Examples of monuments are identifiable roads (such as “the road leading from Webster to Thompson”), barns, railroads, stakes and stones.
When deeds describe the boundary lines differently, it can create uncertainties as to where exactly the parcel of land is located. Surveys and recorded plans describing the property are useful in locating boundary lines but they do not constitute conclusive proof of the location of the boundaries of the property. In any event, “the law does not require absolute certainty of proof to determine a boundary line.” McCarthy v. McDermott, 2010 WL 3011316 at *2 (Land Court). “The standard, as in all civil cases, is by a preponderance of the evidence, i.e. more probably true than not.” Id., citing M. Brodin and M. Avery, Handbook of Massachusetts evidence (8th Ed.), §3.3.2(a) at 67 (Wolters Kluwer 2007). The Land Court recently addressed a boundary line dispute where two plans recorded at the registry of deeds show different boundary lines for the same parcel of land.
After its attorney conducted a title examination revealing that a certain parcel of land was part of its property (the Hubbard Campus) and then obtained a plan in 2014 showing that he owned it, the plaintiff in Hubbard Health Systems Real Estate, Inc. v. Michael Finamore, in his individual capacity and d/b/a Finamore Mgt. Co. and d/b/a FINA Mortgage Company, (Land Court, Misc. 15-000296) (August 19, 2016), 2016 WL 44118195, filed a try title action and sought a declaration that the defendant does not have any interest in that parcel of land (“Disputed Land”).
Plaintiff argued that it owns the Disputed Land by virtue of a chain of title of successive deeds, with the original owner transferring the property nearly 180 years ago. Defendant disagreed, alleging that “these deeds lack identifiable descriptions and bounds” and as such plaintiff “cannot establish record title” to the Disputed Property. The defendant also relied on a 1995 plan, which, contrary to the 2014 plan, showed that the Disputed Property was outside of the Hubbard Campus. The Land Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, finding that the plaintiff “has record title over the entirety of the Hubbard Campus, including the Disputed Property.”
In doing so, the Land Court examined the chain of title all the way back to the mid 19th century. In order to determine where a boundary lies, a court not only considers plans and surveys but also analyzes the intent of the grantor by interpreting the meaning of the deed, i.e. by identifying the property that the grantor meant to convey.
The Land Court explained that there is “a hierarchy of priorities in determining boundary lines for interpreting descriptions in a deed.” From the top of the hierarchy to the bottom are: (1) descriptions referring to monuments, (2) descriptions using courses and distances, (3) description using area; (4) description by area seldom. “Monuments, when verifiable, are thus the most significant evidence to be considered.” McCarthy, supra at *1..
The Land Court rejected the defendant’s argument that certain “deeds are vague because they refer to stakes and stones.” The Land Court reiterated that “the use of stakes and stones as monuments in describing the bounds of the abutters’ land is on the top of the hierarchy for deed description and should be given weight.” As to the 1995 plan relied upon the defendant, showing a different boundary line than the 2014 plan, the Land Court found that the information contained in “the 1995 plan was simply incorrect” in that it did not account for certain deeds and the boundary descriptions therein.
The Land Court also rejected the notion that a tax assessor’s map is evidence of title. “Generally, a ‘tax assessor’s map has nothing to do with title’.” “The fact that the tax assessor’s map previously labeled the Disputed Property as having an unknown owner, and then being owned by [defendant] is not conclusive of title.” “It merely shows that different parties have or have not claimed ownership of the Disputed Property for tax purposes.”
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