Need advice on proof of home ownership situation for a book-- bet the smart people here can help!

Hey all,
So I need advice/info on a hypothetical situation for a book (fantasy fiction.) The main character (Ginny) used to live in a house in California, but her family was forced to leave when she was seven years old. She was then taken care of by a mysterious uncle who she almost never saw. As an adult, she suddenly got a letter saying that he’d transferred ownership of the house to her, with a copy of the deed included and also the keys. There seems to be no way to actually find the uncle, though. She drives down to Sunol (the location of the house.) The next day, the creepy representative of a sinister businessman in San Jose calls her and claims that his boss actually owns the house and land.

So the question is where to go next as far as actually proving who owns the house. I do know that the original deed should be in the county recorder’s office where the house is located (Alameda in this case.) What happens if Ginny goes to the office and finds out the deed has mysteriously vanished? What if the other side has a duplicate deed that supposedly proves they do own it? What would the legal situation be?

The genre is very much fantasy-- it turns out that there’s a tunnel beneath the house that leads to an alternate dimension. :rolleyes: BUT… I really want the legal details surrounding the ownership of the house to be accurate. Does anyone know more about this? Thanks in advance…

I’d contact a local title company and have them do a title search. It will reveal any liens or claims against the property. It’s a standard part of any closing procedure in the purchase of a house. Typically this will cost about $200, and take a couple of weeks.

Thanks Renee! :slight_smile: I’ve added that. I think what I’m maybe really trying to figure out, though, is if this unusual situation could even happen and what the result would be if it did. Ginny got a mysterious letter with a copy of the deed; she didn’t purchase the house. It was sent by her great-uncle, but then nobody could find him. But there weren’t any competing liens on the house, at least from what the title company could find (I just added that.) I’m not sure if she would have to pay taxes on the gift of the house as long as she just kept living in the house. What would come next if all of this actually happened?

Land deeds are never mysterious, just a litany of (hopefully) correctly recorded transactions. Taxes always show who was obliged to pay for a particular piece of land along with who was the owner of record. Positing a lapse of ownership brings along a need to explain taxation, lack of governmental foreclosure, et al. If this was part of estate disbursement the executor would have never sent keys-and-a-deed in the mail.

So, this brilliant idea for a story needs to be set {outside / before / after} the modern legal and governmental system of America.

Look up adverse possession:

So in fact even if the uncle paid taxes, but if he never went to that place that sinister businessman could well have occupied the property in some way and now has a legal right to it.

Nitpick (per SDMB regulations) - Alameda County records will be in Oakland, not Alameda.

They might at least slow things down by challenging her legal identity - like if she normally went by a middle name or there were discrepancies between her and her parents names on her birth certificate and the deeds. the absence of her uncle might complicate this. They could certainly challenge the chain of possession from her parents to her uncle to her.

I re-read the OP … then I looked at the copy of the deed to my place … it’s just a copy, the original Official™ deed is down in the county seat … the interloper’s deed is not …

For the sake of argument … let’s say both deeds are on file … next step is Superior Court for Alameda County … a judge will need to sort this out … Ginny might want to push the fact that extra-dimensional creatures don’t have legal standing in the USA without immigration papers …

If Ginny gets the house, then there will be taxes due … she’s on the hook for income taxes and as near as I can figure the Uncle Screwball is on the hook for gift taxes (or Ginny if Uncle bails) … Instructions for IRS Form 709 {PDF} …

I think for the OP the protagonist should be notified that her unlce made her a joint tenant with survivorship meaning she owns the property IF he is daed. But is he really dead? And if so, who killed him? The business partner? The lover? Billy Zane?

Does California still go by deeds? Adverse possession has been beaten to death here in numerous threads.

So the questions that will come up - who paid taxes? (Presumably some shadowy anonymous figure showed up or gave a false name and made a payment at the county seat each year.) Not to mention, who paid gas and electricity, sewer and water charges?
Need witnesses showing the occupant was actually there openly and without hiding for 5-plus years to get squatters’ rights. (Neighbours? Postman?)
Open and notorious means the person was obviously using the property, not sneaking around to hide from the real owners.
AFAIK, IANAL and not in CA, but this isn’t the Victorian Wild West. The deed is not a magic piece of paper that whoever steals gets ownership of the land. Presumably, if like elsewhere, the deed has to be registered at the local land registry, and each change of ownership recorded.

Mind you, if she’s walked away from the house years ago without staking a claim, I presume she’s SOL as far as squatter’s rights.

Of course, if I were a shadowy creepy being from another realm, I would have no difficulty accessing the deed registry files after hours and creating a fake deed transfer backdated, nor faking a written lease “for the sum of 1 eternal soul and $50,000, I will allow Eliza to occupy the house until her 18th birthday”.
In which case, she’s doubly screwed.

But then, any shadowy creepy figure would know all the legal ins and outs.

Snerk! :slight_smile: The IRS would probably say that they don’t care which dimension the sinister being is from; he just needs to pay the taxes.

So much good info here. Let’s see if I can actually sort through it…

  • The mysterious great-uncle actually turns out to be the same person as the extra-dimensional creature from another realm. So he’s “alive.” :wink: He has to pay gift tax, but does Ginny need to pay taxes if she lives in the home and doesn’t sell it or any of the land it’s on? (8 undeveloped acres half an hour from San Jose, which is REALLY how we know this is fantasy.)

  • Ginny had to leave the house when she was 7 and is now 22. She actually didn’t have any idea that her great-uncle ever owned the house. She thought it belonged to her parents, who were killed in an unexplained car crash.

-For a little more background: The Winchester House is now next door to her house at 2826 Kilkare Road and is known as the “Kilkare Mansion.” The same sinister being also just started trying to do the same thing with this house. He’s actually also the supposed “great-uncle” of Drake, the owner of the Kilkare Mansion. The biggest difference is that Drake’s family (all dead in a mysterious accident when he was 8) left him a lot of money, so he’s hired lawyers.

  • I like the idea of adverse possession. It has truthiness. :rolleyes: The readership for this fic may not particularly care if it’s 100% realistic-- they’re a LOT more interested in the Ginny/Drake romance. But I want the real estate details to at least be… believable.

And thanks so much to everyone who’s contributing info! :slight_smile:

It’s probably still possible to get from Sunol to San Jose in a half hour if you go at 3:00 am. Not complete fantasy. :wink:

Another nitpick – that statement that the original deed in the county records has ‘mysteriously vanished’.

Over 10 years ago, I worked in Hennepin County Minnesota on a project to scan in all the old paper records and convert to online digital processing. This was in different departments (Veterans records & then Human Services records), but I believe similar efforts were underway in most of the county departments – including the Recorder of Deeds.

I don’t know about Alameda County, California records, but I’d guess there are digital copies. In fact, here in Minnesota, I don’t think you can even get the actual deed anymore – if you go to the county office, you can get a copy printed, and can get a ceretified copy, but they keep the original copy.

An hour out of San Jose … that explains how they’re stealing water … but go over again why the feral cats are stockpiling depleted Plutonium from Lawrence/Livermore …

From a few recent threads… Many jurisdictions have switched from deeds to computerised records - and what the computer says is the gospel truth, cannot be disputed (except in cases of blatant fraud), and adverse possession does not apply. I am gathering from this thread that this is not the case in California…yet.

There’s probably no need for the “yet.” Torrens Title (which predates computers) never caught on in the USA, and in most of the places that tried to do it (including California) it fizzled and was eventually abolished.

Computerized records are not the same thing as the Torrens system.

IIRC there was a famous case in Ontario where someone impersonating the owner got a large mortgage on a paid off property - then took the money and ran. When the bank went after the real owners (did you expect them not to?) on a strict reading of the law, the court said the law left no leeway but to allow the mortgage lien to stand against the property since the legislation made no allowance for fraud.

Since fixed.

And in any real estate transactions since, I have had to provide serious proof of identity to the lawyers involved.

IME this is very much the standard system.

The county office is typically known as the Registry of Deeds, and is the repository of all official information as to property ownership. In addition to all deeds back through history, there will be a “Grantor / Grantee Index” that shows all transactions.

Pretty much anyone is free to make copies of any document, but the official copies do not leave the office. Making a fraudulent change to the official records in a way that would withstand scrutiny would be a formidable challenge.

Deeds are not lost at the county. Deeds are recorded in a book at the county. And today they are also recorded electronically. Tax bills have been sent out each year with the recorded owner.

If your evil doers have a unrecorded quit claim deed for the property there could be troubles. But it would be up to them to prove the quit claim deed was valid.