If you own real estate, you may already know a little bit about what it means to have “title” to the property. Title generally means you have all the ownership rights of a piece of property. “Clear title” means that nobody else has any claim or lien against the property. But what happens if you discover that your property does not have clear title because of a problem with a deceased owner? The probate process may help you with your quiet title action.
What is a quiet title action?
A person can bring a quiet title action in court to settle disputes over claims to property. It can settle many different types of disputes, from fraudulent deeds to easements and boundary issues. Sometimes the disputes are between two people with competing interests, like a boundary line. Other times, the problem stems from outdated or incorrect information on the title history that needs to be clarified or removed, like a mortgage that was paid off but not removed from the title. Finally, some situations arise when a person dies.
What happens to title when someone dies?
Many different things can happen to real estate after an owner’s death. In Pennsylvania, if the person who died (the decedent) owned the real estate in his or her name only, or as tenants-in-common, someone must probate the property in court. If the property was in a trust, then the trust owns and takes care of the property. If someone else owned the property with the decedent as a joint tenant with rights of survivorship, then that person is the new owner of the entire property.
During probate, the court will distribute the property according to the decedent’s will, if he or she had one. If not, the court will distribute according to Pennsylvania law. Occasionally, things go wrong with this system and the property is not distributed correctly. In other situations, no one started a probate at all.
How does probate help with title issues?
If you find yourself in a situation where no one opened a probate over one year after the decedent’s death, or they opened it but haven’t acted in over six years, and you are supposed to receive the real estate from the decedent, you can bring a quiet title action under statute section 3546.
In other scenarios, you may need a probate if you thought you owned property as a joint tenant with the decedent, but it turns out you had tenancy in common. Rather than having a right of survivorship to the entire property, you only own half the property and the decedent’s estate owns the other half. You will need to probate the decedent’s half to figure out who should receive that half.
You may need the court’s help in identifying the heirs to a piece of property. Sometimes those heirs are not easy to locate. If the personal representative (executor) of an estate failed to transfer the property correctly, you may need to find that person to correct the mistake.
You may be able to work out some of these issues outside of court if you simply need to obtain a deed of some type. Otherwise, the Pennsylvania court systems provide several options for using the probate process to quiet title.