Parties involved in a real estate dispute in Massachusetts are fortunate to have choices when it comes to the venue of the litigation. One of the most strategic decisions that a plaintiff or defendant can make is deciding where to litigate the case. When it comes to real property disputes, the Massachusetts Land Court and the Superior Court have overlapping jurisdiction, also referred to as concurrent jurisdiction, on certain claims. While the Superior Court enjoys broad jurisdiction over a variety of civil and criminal matters, the Land Court specializes in disputes involving real property. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 212, § 26A, permits either party to remove any non-jury civil action involving "any right, title or interest in land" from the Superior Court to the Land Court. The claim must not be one that entitles a party to a jury trial because the Land Court only conducts jury-waived trials, frequently called bench trials.
Nowadays, it is not uncommon for real estate brokers to communicate with their clients and negotiate deals through text messages. The use of text messages in that context has given rise to a new legal issue: whether an exchange of text messages between brokers can create an enforceable contract for the sale of land.
In a recent Land Court case, the Court held that an unsigned Memorandum of Understanding regarding an ownership interest in a home on Nantucket was not binding upon the parties. In Slover v. Carpenter, Walter Boyd Jr. and his sister Josephine Carpenter owned a house on Nantucket as tenants-in-common. No. 14 MISC 487353 KFS, 2016 WL 54899, at *1 (Mass. Land Ct. Jan. 4, 2016). Ms. Carpenter's daughter Katherine Slover and her husband claimed that Ms. Carpenter had repeatedly promised orally and in writing to transfer her one-half interest in the property to them. Id. Ms. Slover and her husband had been long-time tenants of the property under a ten-year lease signed by Mr. Boyd and Ms. Carpenter, but had held over at the expiration of the lease and continued to occupy the property. Id. Mr. Boyd notified Ms. Slover and her husband that the lease would not be renewed, and that the property would revert to the common family usage. Id. at *3.
The ink has long since dried on the purchase and sale agreement for that seaside inn you have always dreamed of owning, but the seller has backed out at the last minute without explanation and failed to attend the closing. You suspect that another buyer has offered a higher price and the seller will try to close on that better deal post haste. You've done your due diligence - you know the inn is profitable and is exactly what you have been looking for. You want this property, and you want it for the price you have agreed to pay. How can you protect yourself from losing this special opportunity to the third party buyer waiting in the wings - whose identity you don't know?
The Court of Appeals recently issued an interesting decision, Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah, 87 Mass. App. Ct. 10 (2015), concerning easements and accessibility rights to parcels of land owned in the late 1800s by members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head in Martha's Vineyard. The parcels in question had been part of a larger tract of land owned by the Tribe in common ownership. In the 1870s, members of the Tribe petitioned the Court to partition, or divide, the land into individual parcels which were then given to individual Tribe members to be held in severalty. Many of the parcels that resulted from that division were landlocked. At the time the land was partitioned, provisions were not made for easements that would provide a right of access to those landlocked parcels. Over a century later, the owners of the landlocked parcels brought an action asking the Court to declare that the parcels of land had access easements across neighboring lots.
Under the doctrine of adverse possession, an individual, business, or group of individuals who have continuously used land owned by someone else for twenty years can make a claim that such use entitles the claimant to ownership of the property. To prevail on a claim of adverse possession, a claimant must prove (1) he or she used the disputed property or portion of a property without permission, (2) that the use was actual, (3) open, (4) notorious, (5) exclusive, and (6) adverse for a period of at least twenty years. Lawrence v. Concord, 439 Mass. 416, 421 (2003).
An easement "creates a nonpossessory right to enter and use land in the possession of another and obligates the possessor not to interfere with the uses authorized by the easement." Patterson v. Paul, 448 Mass. 658, 663 (2007). In other words, a property owner can grant another party the right to use his property in certain ways - such as the right to enter and walk through it - without giving up ownership of the property. Disputes can arise, however, when either party misunderstands or abuses the rights involved.
Local zoning decisions can radically change the landscape of neighborhoods, and challenging a local zoning board's decision in the Commonwealth's courts poses several procedural traps for the unwary. This is particularly true for challenging zoning decisions issued by the City of Boston's Zoning Board of Appeal.
The largest asset in an estate is often real estate, such as the family home. Sometimes the decedent owns additional real estate, such as a vacation home or an income-producing rental property. What happens to such property varies in every situation and poses different risks for the Personal Representative. The most straightforward situation is when the decedent leaves real estate through a Will to a devisee, such as a parent leaving the family home to their children. Upon the parent's death, the real estate transfers to the children to whom it was devised through the Will, subject only to certain allowances, rights of creditors, elective share of a surviving spouse, and administration. See M.G.L. c. 190B, § 3-101.
Whether a litigant is seeking to enforce a judgment or protect assets from creditors, it is important to be aware of the implications of a homestead estate. Also referred to as homestead protection, a homestead estate safeguards part of a person's or family's primary residence from attachment, seizure, execution on judgment, and levy or sale for the payment of most categories of debt. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 188 provides for an automatic homestead estate worth $125,000 per residence, and a declared homestead amount of $500,000 per residence. In order to receive the latter, a homeowner must file a declaration of homestead in the Registry of Deeds in the county where the property is located. Elderly (defined as 62 or older) or disabled homeowners of any age are entitled to $500,000 of protection individually if they file a declaration of homestead; in circumstances where two elderly spouses each file such a declaration, the couple could be protected in the amount of $1,000,000.
Where a mortgage states the term of its underlying debt but includes no separate statement of its own term, the two are one-and-the-same, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the "SJC") has decided in an opinion interpreting and upholding the so-called "obsolete mortgage" statute.
In litigation, such as contract disputes, construction disputes and divorces, determining the value of real property (like the value of a marital home, for example) may become a key issue in the case. While a seemingly simple concept, the term "value" may have several different meanings depending upon the context in which its used in litigation, and understanding the various methods of determining "value" of real property is crucial.
This post was written by Jameson C. Billings, a Dartmouth College junior who worked at Fitch Law Partners LLP during the fall of 2014.
If during the last two to three weeks you have spent any time on a soccer field, in the woods, or on the Massachusetts Turnpike, you have probably noticed that the Commonwealth's deciduous trees have been enjoying their annual star turn. The spectacular colors have reminded this blogger of the protection found in the Massachusetts General Laws for trees on privately owned land.
Good fences make good neighbors. Unless, of course, the fence sits beyond the recorded lot line and the landowner who is now enjoying a somewhat larger piece of property than is reflected on his or her deed claims title to the extra strip of land on his or her side of the fence under the doctrine of adverse possession. In that case, the neighbors (particularly in areas with high land values) often end up in litigation.