People commonly acquire title to land by purchasing it from the rightful owner or by gift or inheritance. But sometimes a third party can acquire a claim to property, through adverse possession, due to neglect of the landowner. Adverse possession claims might first come to light when a property is in the process of being sold; they must be resolved first. Quiet title actions might be employed to do that.
Adverse Possession, Defined
Adverse possession is “a means to acquire title to land through obvious occupancy of the land, while claiming ownership for the period of years set by the law of the state where the property exists,” according to the People’s Law Dictionary. Dictionary authors Gerald and Kathleen Hill provide the example of a rancher who fences in a piece of land based on his contention it was granted to him from a prior owner. Over many years, he grazes his cattle on the parcel, with no objection from the person who holds title to the land. He could then have a claim for adverse possession.
Quiet Title Action, Defined
A quiet title action is a lawsuit “to establish a party's title to real property against anyone and everyone, and thus ‘quiet’ any challenges or claims to the title,” according to the People’s Law Dictionary.
Authors Gerald and Kathleen Hill provide examples that include recording problems such as old, expired leases, failures to clear a mortgage after it was paid, an incorrect description of the parcel that casts doubt on the amount of land owned, or easements, which are permissive uses of parts of the land, that were never recorded. In actions for quiet title, notice is given to all those who might have a potential interest or claim on the property. Good title is achieved if a court is convinced title is solely the plaintiff’s.
Similarities and Distinctions
Both adverse possession and quiet title, generally, involve title to a parcel of land. Both also have specific legal criteria and requirements that vary from state to state. The two concepts are different parts of the same whole, however. Whereas adverse possession is one, very specific way a person can obtain ownership of land that was not his own, quiet title is the proper legal process used to resolve a range of problems that make a parcel of land’s ownership uncertain, including adverse possession claims. Similar problems could include, for example, mechanics liens, judgments and constructive trusts. All these problems make transfer of property very difficult and a piece of property less valuable, which is why clear title is so important.
A plaintiff could bring a quiet title action to obtain a judgment that he is in fact the legal owner of a parcel of land that he says he acquired by adverse possession. The title owner could also bring a quiet title action to resolve the adverse possession claim. Without that judgment, anyone associated with the property in the future will be uncertain of their interest in the property and the title to that property will always be clouded, or unclear.
Siobhan Egan has edited newspapers and news websites at the Jersey Shore since 1999 and been an attorney since 1994. Her writing has won five statewide awards from the New Jersey Press Association. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from Bucknell University and a Juris Doctor from Temple University.