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Property Ownership: Can you prove that you own your land?

14 May 2018

It is surprising the number of clients I meet who own large areas of farm land and various properties but are not completely sure where their Title Deeds are held. Are they in the bank, with a lawyer, in the dusty tin in the bottom drawer or somewhere else? Land passed down the generations is often assumed to have good title but where Deeds are missing and land unregistered, it can cause a real headache for farming families in the process of a sale, purchase or bereavement. It is not unusual to discover that the land is owned by long-dead relatives having never been updated and this in turn can lead to the “wrong” relatives owning land by mistake.

When advising on lifetime planning or administering an estate, knowing the correct Title to property is crucial. For instance if land is owned jointly I need to know if it passes automatically to the co-owner by virtue of being held as “Joint Tenants” or passes under the terms of the Will (or intestacy) because it is held as “Tenants in Common”. This point was highlighted in my recent article involving the case of Sargeant v Sargeant which involved a dispute over whether farmland was an asset of the partnership and as such did not pass under the terms of a Will.

If land is registered, missing Title Deeds may be less of an issue because details of ownership should be on the Land Register, an electronic register of land ownership in England and Wales. But vast amounts of our countryside remain unregistered and in those circumstances, if the Deeds are missing or destroyed, how can you evidence ownership?

It is possible to reconstruct the Title to an area of land and register this with the Land Registry. To do so, an applicant needs to provide the Land Registry with an account of the events which led to the loss or destruction of the Deeds, a reconstruction of the Title (as far as possible) and evidence of identity. In the case of a bereavement, having a family member with detailed knowledge of the history of the land (and particularly of the boundaries) is invaluable however, accumulating the evidence to corroborate their account can still be a difficult and time consuming exercise.

Alison Hall web profile 2016

There are a number of reasons why reconstructing the Title to a property is clearly not ideal. First, a reconstructed Title may only lead to “Possessory” ownership. Possessory Title is open to challenge by those who can evidence better Title to the land. Second, there are costs involved in accumulating evidence, preparing statements and registering land. Additional costs may also arise if the Land Registry requires an Ordinance Survey of the land or if disputes arise over the ownership (for instance if the boundary of neighbouring land has been incorrectly registered).

Whilst these issues may put land owners off ensuring the Title of their property is in order, the unfortunate truth is that the Title of the land will need to be evidenced at some point. In my experience, the more time that passes the more diluted the background to the Title can become and it is often easier to rectify any missing Title Deeds sooner rather than later. The benefits of doing so include resolving any disputes  during your lifetime and of course ensuring that the land passes smoothly to the next generation or indeed to a potential purchaser if the land is ever sold.

For more information on any of the above, or how we can help your business, please contact Alison Hall, or call 0191 232 8345.