Inheriting Registered Land

If you have inherited registered land, you need to be aware that certain Probate Court and Land Court actions will be required to clear title to that property and to ensure that your interest is properly protected.

The Land Registration System: An Overview

To understand why an estate cannot simply convey registered land to you by a recordable deed, you must first understand how land ownership is generally managed in Massachusetts. Unlike most states, Massachusetts has two systems for documenting legal rights to real property: the recording system and the registration system. Most of us are familiar with the recording system through our experiences recording deeds and other instruments (e.g. mortgages) at the local Registry of Deeds. Under this system, the Registry serves as an index giving notice to all the world of anyone claiming an interest in a particular property. Title to recorded land is generally perfected upon the filing (or “recording”) of a deed at the local Registry’s office, such as a deed granted from a personal representative of an estate to an heir.

However, roughly twenty percent of properties in Massachusetts are registered, not recorded, which means the state, after a registration process, issues a “Certificate of Title” guarantying ownership of that property. Title to recorded land, on the other hand, is never guaranteed (this is one reason why we have title insurance). For registered land, no search of the Registry records is necessary to determine who may claim an interest in a property. Rather, to be valid, an interest must be indicated on the Certificate of Title. Certificates are maintained in the local Registry office and are supervised by the Massachusetts Land Court.

Formal Probate Required

So what is the impact of inheriting registered land? The Land Court will only issue a new Certificate of Title following death of the owner if the Court can be absolutely sure that no other person, such as a missing heir, may later claim an interest in the property. Consequently, the Land Court requires that an estate containing registered land be subject to a formal proceeding in the Probate Court, which is an adjudication by that Court to determine, once and for all, the heirs to an estate and/or any issues regarding the existence or validity of a Will affecting the property. After a Formal Proceeding has been adjudicated, a Petition may be filed in the Land Court to approve certain deeds issued by the estate or to issue a new Certificate of Title in the name of the rightful heir(s) or devisees under a Will.

If you have inherited land that you know or believe to be registered, please give us a call or send us an e-mail. The process outlined above will vary depending on the facts and circumstances of each case. We have experience dealing with registered land and administering estates under the recently-enacted Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code and will be sure to protect your inheritance from improper or incomplete administration.