Lawsuits share something in common with perishable items: They have expiration dates. Called a statute of limitations, the time limit prevents a plaintiff from delaying litigation and seeks to avoid undue hardship to the defendant. The laws also help preserve evidence, since items can be lost or destroyed and witness memories fade. The limitation periods vary by state and the cause of action. Real estate causes of actions can have relatively short limitation periods -- such as three years -- or relatively long ones -- such as 21 years.
Deeds and Limitation Periods
State laws generally require a valid deed or some other written instrument to legally transfer title to real property. While deed requirements may vary, in general three things must happen: The deed must comply with state laws, be signed by the original owner and be delivered to and accepted by the new owner. The statute of limitations generally begins to run when one party is harmed in some way -- the harm varies based on the facts and circumstances. Deeds and real estate may be at issue, but depending on the specific reason for filing, the limitation period may be short or long.
Quiet Title Actions
Quiet title actions are common lawsuits that involve real estate and deeds. In a quiet title action, the plaintiff is seeking to assert his superior ownership interest over all other claims. For example, if two people claim to be the owner of the same parcel of property, a quiet title action can resolve the dispute. Limitation periods vary by state. In Michigan, the lawsuit must be filed within 15 years; Michigan law shortens the limitation period for quiet title actions involving claims for compensation to six years. In contrast, Pennsylvania has a 21-year limitation period.
Problems involving the deed itself may call for a shorter limitation period. In New York, for example, causes of actions involving fraud -- such as a deed that was fraudulently signed -- have a six-year statute of limitation, unless the fraud is difficult to discover, in which case the limitation period is two years after discovery. Additionally, the limitation period may fall under the state’s catchall provision if the cause of action does not fall under one of the enumerated statutes of limitation. In Mississippi, the catchall limitation is three years while in Pennsylvania it is six years.
The limitation period does not prevent a plaintiff from filing the lawsuit. Instead, it allows a defendant to seek dismissal of the case by asserting the statute of limitations as a defense. In some cases, the limitation period may be extended, especially if one of the parties was a minor or incapacitated or if the harm was not easily discoverable. Because the limitations period is dependent on the facts and circumstances of each case, readers should seek independent advice before proceeding.