What is a Quiet Title Action? (Explained by a Real Estate Attorney)

A quiet title action is a legal proceeding used to confirm or clarify the ownership of real estate. A quiet title suit can settle a dispute over who owns real property. It can also fix a technical error in the chain of title to real property.

Jump to a quiet title topic:

Quiet Title Definition: What Exactly Does Quiet Title Mean?

Why Would You File a Quiet Title Suit?

Quiet Title Process (step-by-step)

How Much Does a Quiet Title Action Cost?

Can I Do a Quiet Title Myself?

Quiet Title Definition

What Does Quiet Title Mean?

The term “quiet title” generally refers to any lawsuit that attempts to confirm ownership, fix a title error, or settle an ownership dispute. The end result of a quiet title lawsuit is a court order clarifying or confirming who owns the subject property. In other words, a quiet title fixes the chain of title.

Each time real property moves from one owner to another, a new link is created in the “chain of title” to real property. A quiet title suit may be necessary when the chain of title is disputed or broken due to an error in conveyancing.

A strict set of rules governs how a new link can be created. These rules ensure that the true owner of the property can be identified at any time by an examination of public records, thereby preventing false claims of ownership. 

In order for a system of private property rights to function properly, there must be stability and certainty as to the ownership of real property.  If there is the slightest doubt or confusion as to ownership, title companies will not issue title policies and buyers will not buy.  In other words, the chain of title must be fully intact.

Why Would a Property Owner File a Quiet Title Suit?

There are two main reasons why someone would file a quiet title suit:

  1. Technical Title Defect. No one really disputes the true owner. But due to conveyancing errors, the title records are defective, making it hard to sell or refinance the property. A quiet title can cure the title defect.
  2. Actual Ownership Dispute. There is a true dispute over who owns real estate. Two or more parties are claiming to own the same real property. A quiet title can settle the dispute.

Reason #1: Quiet title to fix a technical title defect.

What do we mean by “technical title defect”?

A technical title defect is a break in the chain of title that causes problems with selling or refinancing the property, even though there is no real challenge to ownership.

Here is an example of how the chain of title can be broken, even when everyone knows who really owns the property:

Great Grandpa died owning the Family Farm. He did not have a written will.  Instead, his kids just divided up the Family Farm based on his oral instructions.  However, record title was still held by Great Grandpa.  A few years later, the kids sold the Family Farm to a neighboring landowner.  The neighbor did not discover that record title was still held by Great Grandpa.  Not only that, the kids drew up the deed themselves, and they accidentally left out a 10-acre tract of land in the middle of the Family Farm.  Twenty years later, the neighbor died.  Just like Great Grandpa, the neighbor did not have a formal will.  Instead, he simply told his wife that she would inherit the Family Farm.  At this point, the neighbor’s wife decided to sell the family farm to a real estate developer.  The developer ran title work and discovered: (1) record title was still in Great Grandpa’s name; (2) the 10-acre tract was missing from the legal description; and (3) the neighbor never formally transferred title to his wife.  In other words, there were several technical defects in the chain of title.  The real estate developer cannot receive marketable title or obtain a title insurance policy on the Family Farm until these defects are cured.

The developer could likely fix all of his title problems at once with a quiet title action.  In the quiet title suit, the developer’s attorney would describe all of the title defects.  He would ask the ask the judge to cure these defects with a court Order declaring that the developer is now the true owner of the Family Farm. The judge’s final Order would be filed in the county property records, and the Order itself would become a link in the chain of title.  Later on, if the developer sells the Family Farm, the buyer’s title company would locate the quiet title Order in the public records, confirming that the developer is the true owner of the Family Farm.

Reason #2: Quiet title to settle an ownership dispute.

Although quiet title actions often cure technical title defects without any conflict between the parties, they can also be used to settle actual ownership disputes. A quiet title action is a real lawsuit, with real plaintiffs and defendants. When you file a quiet title lawsuit, you are actually suing someone.  That said, a quiet title lawsuit is primarily focused on property ownership and rarely includes a claim for money to be paid by one party to another.

The defendants in a quiet title lawsuit are anyone and everyone who may claim an ownership interest in the subject property. When the lawsuit is filed, potential claimants receive notice and have a chance to assert an interest in the property. If they do not assert an interest, they forever lose the right to do so, and their claim of ownership goes away. However, if they do assert an interest, there could be a legal dispute over ownership. 

For this reason, a quiet title attorney should be careful to explain the lawsuit in a way that minimizes the possibility of a dispute.  But if a dispute arises, the judge will hear evidence on property ownership and ultimately issue a final Order deciding who truly owns the property.

Quiet Title Alternatives

Choosing the wrong legal tool can make a costly title problem even more costly.  Sometimes, a title defect can be fixed by locating a key person and asking them to sign a curative instrument, such as a quit claim deed.  Other times, an ownership dispute can be settled by private agreement.  These methods can be faster and cheaper than a quiet title action.  If your title issue relates to a deceased person, a probate or ancillary probate might be the most appropriate legal tool.  If you are lucky, you can fix your problem without a quiet title or a probate.

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