This blog post is Part II in a series of blog posts discussing the determination of ownership within boundary disputes. Part I discussed the different claims and elements of claims in boundary dispute actions. This second post concerns the information used in proving ownership in boundary disputes.
Proving ownership is essential in any boundary dispute as it is the dispositive determination in a real property boundary disputes. There is an extensive list of information that may be used to prove proper ownership. This blog will explore the different types of information, from documents to the conduct of the parties, that may used in to prove or disprove ownership.
I. Documents used to prove ownership.
As with many other causes of action, a cause of action regarding a boundary dispute oftentimes involves written documents. One of the first documents to review when there is a boundary dispute is the survey, map, or plat. Looking exclusively at the survey, because the survey is typically easier to read and understand than a map or plat, it is important to review the survey the claimant is relying upon, any conflicting survey, and any other surveys available for the property at issue. The survey may indicate proper ownership of a property (although most cases are not as simple as merely reviewing the survey of the property). More commonly, practitioners use a survey to establish who has superior title.
In some instances, the potential misuse of a survey or map through survey data actually creates the property dispute. Misuse occurs if the surveyor or mapper has not adequately communicated the minimum standards of accuracy, completeness, and quality to the public through a map, report, or both. Accuracy is dependent upon the type of survey and expected use of survey; measurements must adhere to United States standards—either feet or meters. As a quality control measure, records should be dated and contain sufficient data to substantiate the map.
In addition to surveys, a party may look to their sales contract or deed. Certain types of deeds may be only document necessary in certain actions, such as the existence of a tax deed, on its face, is enough to support a claim for quiet title. When the parties must look beyond the face of document, the sales contract or deed will contain one of the four types of legal descriptions of the property, which may be helpful to their claim: (1) original government surveys; (2) fractional section descriptions; (3) mets and bounds descriptions; and (4) subdivision plat book descriptions. If there are inconsistencies within the property references, Florida has established that the following property descriptions—in order of importance—to determine boundary lines: natural monuments, artificial monuments, distances, course and quantities.
In cases of adverse possession with color of title, there must be a written instrument that is recorded in the official county records. Thus, this may include some type of deed (tax deed, trust deed, or sheriffs’ deed), land patent, or final judgment. Although such a document would not be sufficient by itself, it is necessary to establish the claim.
Aside from documents that are typically associated with ownership, a claimant may also use affidavits to help prove the element of their claim. Factual affidavits, or voluntary declarations of facts officially sworn to by the affiant, can be used to aid determinations in boundary disputes. An affidavit may substitute as witness testimony in a quiet title or similar action. Affidavits between landowners that affirm agreement to a boundary line will support a judgment that confirms the boundary line.
II. Conduct of the parties used to prove ownership.
The determination of some real property disputes is dependent upon the actions taken by the parties. In actions where the claimant is attempting to establish adverse possession, the presence of a prescriptive easement, the existence of a boundary agreement, or the existence of boundary acquiescence, courts typically look to the conduct of the parties. For example, the building and usage of a fence by the claimant on the property that he/she claims belongs to them and/or claims that the fence establishes the boundary, may establish any of the aforementioned causes of action from the previous sentence (given that the other elements are proven). While the same evidence may be used for different claims, like the example of the fence, the effect of each are different because the result could be a change in boundary, change in ownership, or change in use.
In establishing an agreement or acquiescence, the outcome of the dispute determines the boundary. In a boundary agreement, the agreement need not be written; it is sufficient that there is an implied agreement through the conduct of the parties to give rise to support the existence of some agreement. Williams v. Johntry, 214 So. 2d 62, 64 (Fla. 1st DCA 1968). In a boundary by acquiescence, the conduct of the parties is reflective of the element of acquiescence for the statutory period, which refers to the parties’ possession of the boundary line. Hearn Prop., Inc. v. Cruce, 20 So. 3d 877, 880 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009). If there is an issue as to the boundary line between two parties, the common remedy implemented by the court is to fix the true boundary line and to reform the deeds to reflect the boundary line.
The establishment of an easement does not necessarily change the boundaries of the parties’ properties, nor does it convey any real interest in the property; rather, it establishes the use rights of the parties. Important to note here, actions for easements sometimes start as a boundary dispute, which is why it is important to include in this blog. As an example, a claimant may assert that the dirt path establishes a boundary on the far side, such that it belongs to him, but the reality is that the dirt path is an easement. Returning to the discussion of information utilized in establishing easements, certain types of easements are controlled by written documents (ie. express easements), whereas other types of easements are controlled by the conduct of the parties (ie. easements by prescription and easements by implication).
Adverse possession results in an entire change in title. Again, adverse possession claims may start out as a boundary dispute and are seen commonly in the boundary by acquiescence actions. A party may attempt to use the doctrine of estoppel in pursuing an action with a basis in adverse possession. Courts have held that the doctrine of estoppel may not be used to establish title, but may be used in defending title. Bryant v. Peppe, 238 So. 2d 836 (Fla. 1970).
In sum, property ownership may be proven by many forms of information including surveys, deeds, affidavits, and conduct of the parties. The nature of information to prove ownership is based on the claims asserted. While the first two parts of this series of blog posts have discussed ownership of land, there are also issues with ownership and use rights of water, which will be discussed in part three.