Guide to Understanding
The Term "Title"
Title is a legal term for an owner's interest in a piece of property. It may also refer to a formal document that serves as evidence of ownership. Conveyance of the document may be required in order to transfer ownership in the property to another person. Title is distinct from possession, a right that often accompanies ownership but is not necessarily sufflicient to prove it. In many cases, both possession and title may be transferred independently of each other.
The three elements of title are possession, the right of possession, and the right of property. Possession is the actual holding of a thing, whether or not one has any right to do so. The right of possession is the legitimacy of possession (with or without actual possession), the evidence for which is such that the law will uphold it unless a better claim is proven. The right of property is that right which, if all relevant facts were known (and allowed), would defeat all other claims. Each of these may be in a different person.
For example, suppose A steals from B, what B had previously bought in good faith from C, which C had earlier stolen from D, which had been an heirloom of D's family for generations, but had originally been stolen centuries earlier (though this fact is now forgotten by all) from E. Here A has the possession, B has an apparent right of possession (as evidenced by the purchase), D has the absolute right of possession (being the best claim that can be proven), and the heirs of E, if they knew it, have the right of property, which they cannot prove. Good title consists in uniting these three (possession, right of possession, and right of property) in the same person(s).
A simpler example is when someone purchases an automobile and finances it. The party "buying" the automobile has possession and is the "registered owner." The bank or finance company has legal ownership and is listed as the "lienholder." In the event the registered owner fails to make payments to the lienholder, the lienholder has the right to repossess the automobile, presumably to sell it. The registered owner has possession and right of possession, while the lienholder retains right of property.
Now, if the financed automobile referenced above was purchased by a company and was being loaned out by a car rental organization, the person who rented the vehicle would have possession; the rental company would be the registered owner and have right of possession, while again, the lienholder would have right of property.
The extinguishing of ancient, forgotten, or unasserted claims, such as E's in the example above, was the original purpose of statutes of limitations. Otherwise, title to property would always be uncertain.
In countries with a sophisticated private property system, documents of title are commonly used for real estate, motor vehicles, and some types of intangible property. When such documents are used, they are often part of a registration system whereby ownership of such property can be verified. In some cases, a title can also serve as a permanent legal record of condemnation of property, such as in the case of an automobile junk or salvage title. In the case of real estate, the legal instrument used to transfer title is the deed. A famous rule is that a thief cannot convey good title, so title searches are routine (or highly recommended) for purchases of many types of expensive property (especially real estate). In several counties and municipalities a standard Title search (generally accompanied by Title Insurance) is required under the law as a part of ownership transfer.
Paramount title is the best title in Fee simple available for the true owner. The person who is owner of real property with paramount title has the higher (or better, or "superior") right in an action to Quiet title. The concept is inherently a relative one. Technically, paramount title is not always the best (or highest) title, since it is necessarily based on some other person's title.
A Quiet title action is a lawsuit to settle competing claims or rights to real property, for example, missing heirs, tenants, reverters, remainders and lien holders all competing to get ownership to the house or land. Each of the United States has different procedures for a quiet title action.
However, most personal property items do not have a formal document of title. For such items, possession is the simplest indication of title, unless the circumstances give rise to suspicion about the possessor's ownership of the item. Proof of legal acquisition, such as a bill of sale or purchase receipt, is contributory. Transfer of possession to a good faith purchaser will normally convey title if no document is required.
Title laws have been manipulated by governments to discriminate against ethnic groups whom they perceived to be of a minority group, not necessarily undesirable or inferior. For example, California prevented aliens (mainly Asians) from holding title to land until the law was declared unconstitutional in 1952. Currently there are no restrictions on foreign ownership of land in the United States, although sales of real estate by non-resident aliens are subject to certain special taxation rules.