Deeds

Benjamin Franklin once said famously that “the only certainties in life are death and taxes.” That’s certainly true in real estate practice. Today, I will go over how real estate passes when the owner dies  –  with a will or without a will – and how the probate process affects the real estate process.

Tenancy by the Entirety

Married couples in Massachusetts are recommended to hold real estate as “tenants by the entirety.” It’s a special form of joint tenancy for married couples. If one spouse dies, the surviving spouse succeeds to full ownership of the property, by-passing probate. By law, tenants by the entirety share equally in the control, management and rights to receive income from the property. Property cannot be “partitioned” or split in a tenancy by the entirety. A tenancy by the entirety also provides some creditor protection in case one spouse gets into financial distress as creditors cannot lien the non-debtor spouse’s interest in the property.

Death Without A Will—Intestacy Laws

Clients were often surprised to learn that when one spouse dies without a will, the law of intestacy in Massachusetts leaves a portion of the estate to the surviving spouse and a portion to the decedent’s children. This is changing as of January 2012 with Massachusetts’ adoption of the Uniform Probate Code. Under the “UPC,” if a spouse with children of the marriage dies, the surviving spouse gets the entire estate, including the marital home. If there’s no surviving “descendant,” or child, of the deceased, but a surviving parent of the deceased, the surviving spouse gets the first $200,000 of the estate, plus 75% of the balance of the estate. The laws of inheritance remain rather complicated to explain fully here. A good guide to the new Uniform Probate Code can be found here.

Death With A Will — Testate

The basic rule is that if the owner dies with a will, which includes a power to sell real estate, the executor or administrator of the estate is generally authorized to convey title without further authority from the probate court. If the will does not provide for a power of sale, the executor will have to obtain a license to sell from the probate court.  If a final account has been filed and allowed, the heirs (in the case of an intestacy) or devisees (in the case of a will) are able to convey title.

Missing Probates

If the title examination turns up an interest that is not accounted for by a probate, and the death of the interested party occurred less than 25 years ago, a probate may need to be opened to convey the property. Deaths over 25 years old where a special affidavit has been filed, may pass without probate.

Federal & Massachusetts Estate Tax Liens

A federal and state estate tax lien arises immediately upon death and attaches at the time of death to the gross estate of the decedent. The gross estate includes all property, wherever situated, that the decedent owned or in which the decedent had an interest at the time of death. The threshold for federal gross estates for 2011 and 2012 is $5 Million for an individual and $10 Million for a couple. The Massachusetts estate threshold remains at $1 Million. For estates below those amounts, the executor must merely file a simple Affidavit of No Estate Tax Due. Estates over the thresholds must file the more complicated release of lien from the Department of Revenue which requires the filing of a full estate tax return.

Bought A House? Get A Will!

Julie Ladimer, Esq.

Danielle Van Ess

After every closing, I always have a chat with my new buyers about setting up a will and other estate planning vehicles. It’s very important on all fronts. For those in the MetroWest area, I recommend Julie McQuade Ladimer, Esq. of Framingham (email: jml@michaelgatlinlaw.com; Tel: (508) 788-0028. For those on the South Shore, I recommend Danielle Van Ess, Esq. in Hingham (email: info@dgvelaw.com; Tel: 781.740.0848. Both are very good and well regarded estate planning attorneys.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate attorney who’s handled over 1,000 closings. Please contact him if you need legal assistance purchasing residential or commercial real estate.

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Prospective real estate buyers tend to think of the “mortgage” as the contract they are signing with the bank. This is misleading. The promissory note is the actual contract to loan and borrow money between lender and borrower. The mortgage is the lender’s instrument, or more accurately, its security interest, to enforce that loan contract. This is an important distinction because, if for example, a couple purchases property or refinances, and the loan is taken out solely in the wife’s name, then lining up the correct parties on the signing documents becomes important. But before discussing how to properly configure the closing documents, it is important to understand the definitions.

The Deed

The deed is the legal instrument conveying an ownership interest of the property to a grantee (buyer). The deed is typically drafted by the seller’s attorney. It includes the grantor (seller), the grantee (buyer), the manner in which the buyer is taking title (the tenancy), the consideration (the amount of the purchase price), a legal description of the property, and a cite to the recording information of the prior deed. Click here for an example of a Massachusetts quitclaim deed.

The Promissory Note

The promissory note is the lending contract between the borrower and the lender. The note includes the name(s) of the borrower and the property address. It also includes the amount of the loan, the term (number of years), and the interest rate. The lender generates the note and uses a FannieMae/ Freddie Mac standard template which reflects that it is a uniform instrument. A typical note includes a provision of whether the loan is fixed or adjustable, contains a “no pre-payment fee” clause, and includes language that sets the deadline for the 15th of the month for the lender to receive payment (and sets out a late fee penalty). Click here for a standard form Fannie Mae promissory note.

The Mortgage

The mortgage is the lender’s security interest in the property. In Massachusetts, a “title state,” the borrower is conveying his ownership interest in the home to the lender, such interest would be exercised only in the event of default. Thus, the lender has a lien on the property, which gives it authority to foreclose in the event of continued non-payment. The mortgage is also a uniform instrument whose template is typically generated by the lender and designed and approved by the above-referenced government housing agencies. The only unique terms in the mortgage are the names of the borrowers, the property address and the exhibit which provides a legal description of the property. The rest of the mortgage is standard, providing that the borrower agrees to keep the property insured and maintained, make it her primary residence (unless it’s an investment loan), and not to contaminate the property with hazardous waste, among other requirements. Click here for a sample Massachusetts Fannie Mae mortgage.

Thus, to return to our example, if husband and wife purchase a home and only wife is to be on the loan, then the grantees on the deed are husband and wife, reflecting their ownership interest in the property. The note will contain only the wife (since she alone is taking out the loan). The mortgage however must contain both owners of the property since this instrument tracks the deed. Thus, the husband and wife are both on the mortgage.

After the closing attorney explains the deed, mortgage and promissory note, there are a stack of other loan documents and disclosure to review. We’ve written posts about all the important ones:

Good luck with your closing!

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Attorney Marc E. Canner brings years of experience working closely with Buyers, Sellers, mortgage brokers, loan officers and realtors to provide expert counsel on closing residential real estate transactions. Marc is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Marc E. Canner and a founder of TitleHub Closing Services LLC.

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images-10The deed is the cornerstone of property ownership in Massachusetts and throughout the country. In Massachusetts, there are three types of deeds: a quitclaim deed, a warranty deed, and a release deed. By far the most common deed used in Massachusetts is the quitclaim deed (scroll down for example below), and I’ll focus on that in this post.

Quitclaim Deed Covenants

The quitclaim deed is by far the most common and standard form of deed for Massachusetts residential real estate conveyances. Quitclaim deeds in Massachusetts are similar to “special warranty deeds” in other states. A quitclaim deed carries with it statutory quitclaim covenants by the seller as provided in Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 183, § 17: “The grantor, for himself, his heirs, executors, administrators and successors, covenants with the grantee, his heirs, successors and assigns, that the granted premises are free from all encumbrances made by the grantor, and that he will, and his heirs, executors, administrators and successors shall, warrant and defend the same to the grantee and his heirs, successors and assigns forever against the lawful claims and demands of all persons claiming by, through or under the grantor, but against none other”.

Taking Title

How would you like to take title? This is an important question that buyers must consider. For single individuals, there really is no choice. You take title individually. For married couples, there are three choices: (1) tenancy by the entirety, (2) joint tenants with rights of survivorship, or (3) tenants in common.

Tenancy by the Entirety

This is often the best choice for married couples, and only husband and wife can benefit from this type of ownership. In a tenancy by the entirety form of ownership, if one spouse dies, the surviving spouse succeeds to full ownership of the property, by-passing probate. By law, tenants by the entirety share equally in the control, management and rights to receive income from the property. Property cannot be “partitioned” or split in a tenancy by the entirety. A tenancy by the entirety also provides some creditor protection in case one spouse gets into financial distress as creditors cannot lien the non-debtor spouse’s interest in the property. In the example, below you can see how the Obamas take title as tenants by the entirety.

Joint Tenants

Like tenants by the entirety, a joint tenancy with rights of survivorship provide that the surviving spouse or joint tenant automatically succeeds to ownership, by-passing probate. You don’t have to be married to create a joint tenancy. These are common when siblings share property or as between elderly parents and their children. Unlike a tenancy by the entirety, joint tenants can “partition” or split ownership of the property through a court process.

Tenants in Common

The least used type of ownership, in a tenancy in common, there is no right of survivorship. So when a tenant in common passes, their interest goes to their surviving heirs and the property must be probated for further sale or mortgage. Most folks want to avoid probate like the plague. Like a joint tenancy, a tenancy in common can be split or “partitioned” by court order.

Purchase Price

All deeds must recite the consideration or purchase price paid. So if you are looking to hide the amount you paid for your home, forget about it. The purchase price is also used to calculate deed/transfer taxes due the seller which is $4.56 per $1,000. For more info about deed/transfer taxes read I Have To Pay Tax On Selling My Home?!

Legal Description

Every deed must adequately describe the property conveyed. In the diagram below, you can see the formal legal description called a “metes and bounds” description. This will often reference a plan of the land recorded with the registry of deeds or reference markers on the property such as stone walls, surveyor points, etc. The deed may also recite easements, restrictions, covenants or takings on the property. It will also recite the last prior deed to track ownership.

Drafting, Fees, Notaries, Etc.

In Massachusetts, local practice is for the seller’s attorney to draft the deed. The registry of deeds charges a fee of $125 to record the deed which the buyer pays. All deeds must be notarized by a notary public who must verify the sellers’ identification through a state issued driver’s license or acceptable form of identification. The notary must also confirm that the sellers are signing the deed voluntarily by their own free act and will. Once the closing is finished, the closing attorney will courier the deed to the registry of deeds, perform a final title run-down, and record the deed, mortgage and other documents. The sale is then official!

Massachusetts Deed Example

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Click here to read about my most recent adverse possession trial victory.

Massachusetts Adverse Possession Law

Robert Frost ‘s famous poem The Mending Wall says “good fences make good neighbors.” When that fence encroaches over a neighbor’s property line, however, that good neighbor can turn nasty very quickly.

When boundary or encroachments disputes arise, a little known legal doctrine often comes into play:  adverse possession. Adverse possession is a common law concept in Massachusetts under which homeowners may lose title to their land by sleeping on their property rights for 20 consecutive years against a neighbor who has taken actions contrary to their property interests. Yes, a neighbor can effectively take over ownership of your land if you sleep on your rights. Massachusetts adverse possession law reflects a public policy aimed at inducing landowners to actively protect their land.

The classic example of adverse possession is a neighbor who puts up a fence or paves a driveway several feet over their neighbor’s property line, without permission, and this “adverse possession” continues without objection for 20 consecutive years.  Despite the fact that the neighbor’s fence or driveway encroaches the property line, under the adverse possession doctrine, the property owner may lose title to the disputed strip of land by not doing, saying or even knowing anything about it.

Requirements For Adverse Possession

A landowner can obtain adverse possession only by filing a lawsuit and establishing several elements of the claim.  (My property law professor used a handy acronym called OCEAN to help students remember them). The use of another’s land must be Open, Continuous (for 20 years), Exclusive, Adverse and Notorious. Each element has its own specific requirements, and all adverse possession cases are very fact-specific. The law does not favor adverse possession, so the burden of proof on the claimant is relatively high.

Adverse possession can also occur through multiple prior owners during the 20 year period under a theory called “tacking.” Adverse possession can also be in the form of an easement, or merely a right to use property, called a “prescriptive easement.” This could apply to the gamut of utility, pathway, or access easements.

Surveys and Stakes

Surveys typically form the genesis, and play an important role in, adverse possession cases. The parties must know where the true lot lines are on the property. Sometimes, there are disputes as to the survey in cases of old, poorly laid out lots. Remember that even if you believe the neighbor is wrong about the lot line, it is against the law in Massachusetts to remove survey stakes. (Mass. General Laws Chapter 266, Section 94).   Also under Massachusetts law, a surveyor is allowed to enter upon your land, with reasonable notice, for purposes of completing a survey.

Tips To Prevent Adverse Possession

The key to preventing adverse possession is to be proactive regarding your boundary lines and property rights. If you suspect an encroachment, obtain a full instrument survey, not a mortgage plot plan which can be inaccurate. If an encroachment is found, consult an attorney for further advice.

Generally, the most effective methods to prevent adverse possession are to:

  • Posting “No trespassing” signs (can be helpful, but is not fail-safe)
  • Physically demarcate lot lines with a fence, gate or the like (survey stakes alone may not be enough)
  • Document giving permission to an encroaching neighbor by written document or agreement
  • For prescriptive easements, record a statutory Notice to Prevent Acquisition of Easement. Note: this notice will not prevent a claim of adverse possession to the entire land.
  • Bring a lawsuit to “quiet title”
  • Submit your land to the Land Court registration system

The more land you own (especially raw woodlands) the more proactive you need to be.

Lastly, when buying new property, consider getting an enhanced title insurance policy which has coverage for encroachments and boundary issues, at a small premium over standard rates.

Adverse Possession Lawsuits

Given the high cost and low supply of land in Massachusetts, adverse possession disputes often wind up in litigation. Adverse possession litigation can be expensive because these cases are very fact-specific and require a fair amount of witnesses, factual investigation, title research, and even expert testimony. Adverse possession cases are generally difficult to win, but they can be successful with the right facts and good preparation.

The Massachusetts Land Court hears adverse possession cases along with the Superior Court. Depending on the facts of the case, the plaintiff can do a bit of “forum shopping” between the two courts.

Click here to read about my most recent adverse possession trial victory.
Click Play to listen to my radio broadcast on adverse possession
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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts adverse possession attorney who’s handled numerous adverse possession cases and trials in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352 if you are dealing with a Massachusetts adverse possession dispute.

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