In any legal system that permits private ownership of real property, there will always be disputes as to who truly owns a particular parcel of real estate. For example, an owner might “sell” his property to three unrelated parties. The first party buys the property at the earliest date, the second party pays the highest price, and the third party receives the best deed, a warranty deed. Who owns legal title to the property?
Ownership of legal title is a function of evidence. A court will generally rule that the person who has the preponderance of evidence of ownership is the owner of the property. In the example, if the first two buyers did not receive a deed while the third party did, the third party may have the best evidence and be ruled the legal title-holder. However, what if the first buyer had moved into the house and occupied it for six months before the original owner sold the property to the second and third buyers? And what if the second buyer, after searching title records, reports that the seller never really owned the property and therefore could not legally sell it to anyone! Now who owns the property?
The illustration underscores the difficulty of proving title to real estate: there is no absolute and irrefutable proof that a party holds legal title. Our legal system has developed two forms of title evidence– actual notice and constructive notice– to assist in the determination.
The term “notice” is synonymous with “knowledge.” A person who has received actual notice has actual knowledge of something. Receiving actual notice means learning of something through direct experience or communication. In proving real estate ownership, a person provides actual notice by producing direct evidence, such as by showing a valid will. Another party receives actual notice by seeing direct evidence, such as by reviewing the deed, reading title records, or physically visiting the property to see who is in possession. Thus if Mary Pierce drives to a property and sees directly that John Doe is in possession of the home, Mary then has received actual notice of John Doe’s claim of ownership. Her knowledge is obtained through direct experience.
Constructive notice, or legal notice, is knowledge of a fact that a person could have or should have obtained. The foremost method of imparting constructive notice is by recordation of ownership documents in public records, specifically, title records. Since public records are open to everyone, the law generally presumes that when evidence of ownership is recorded, the public at large has received constructive notice of ownership. By the same token, the law presumes that the owner of record is in fact the legal owner. Thus, if John Doe records the deed of conveyance, he has imparted, and Mary Pierce has received, constructive notice of ownership. Possession of the property can also be construed as constructive notice, since a court may rule that Mary should have visited the property to ascertain whether it was occupied.
A combination of actual and constructive notice generally provides the most indisputable evidence of real property ownership.