Category: Real Estate Litigation

TRANSFER OF TAX FIFA’S IN GEORGIA

Property taxes in Georgia are due towards the end of the year. For example, in Fulton County, 2021 taxes were due by November 15, 2021. When property taxes are not paid, the county’s taxing authority issues a fifa. A fifa acts as a lien against the property and is recorded on the county’s real estate records. The taxing authority must issue a 30-day notice to property owners before filing the fifa. The lien remains on the county’s public records until the taxpayer pays the taxes.

The most dramatic event that happens after filing a fifa is that the taxing authority may present the tax lien to the sheriff. The sheriff will use the fifa as a basis to auction the property to pay the taxes. This process is known as a tax sale.

To get taxes paid, taxing authorities in Georgia often sell their fifa’s to third-party investors. FIG and Investa are two companies that purchase tax liens.

For a taxpayer, a transfer of a tax fifa is confusing because the third party pays the county. The taxes are then owed to third-party, not the county. Thus, the county will show the taxes as paid, but the taxes are still owed.

Under Georgia law, OCGA § 48-3-19, the third-party purchasing the lien must send notice by first-class mail to the taxpayer within 60 days. In theory, this is to notify the taxpayer of whom to pay the taxes to. However, our office has had reports from taxpayers claiming they didn’t get any notice. Like the taxing authority, the third party can take the fifa to the sheriff and ask to auction the property to pay off the fifa.

If taxes are unpaid, you need to act as quickly as possible to pay the taxes to the correct party before there is a tax sale. Please call us at 404-382-9994 if you find yourself in this situation.

Georgia: Injury to Real Estate

          The Georgia legislature has passed several statutes to protect landowners against interference with and injury to their real estate. The starting point is that enjoyment of private property is an “absolute right” of every citizen. Any interference with such enjoyment creates a tort (wrongful act or an infringement of a right resulting in civil legal liability). OCGA § 51-9-1.

            To the extent a person wrongfully deprives a landowner of possession of their property, the landowner can seek to recover possession and sue for damages for such injury to real estate. OCGA § 51-9-2. Similarly, if any person wrongfully interferes with a landowner’s possession, the landowner can seek damages. OCGA § 51-9-3.

            Likewise, if a person wrongfully enters the landowner’s land or property without permission, a landowner to bring an action for trespass for injury to real estate. OCGA § 51-9-4. Trespass applies to persons wrongfully on land and applies to such things as improperly placed improvements or causing flooding on a landowners’ property. Anyone or anything that comes onto someone’s land due to wrongful conduct of another person can be a trespass. Suppose two persons claim possession of the same land. In that case, the person with title to the land is deeming to be rightfully in possession. In contrast, the other person is deemed to be a trespasser. OCGA § 51-9-5.

            Regarding damages for trespass, such damages are limited to damages incurred up until an action is filed. OCGA § 51-9-6. Damages that occur after filing a lawsuit create a new cause of action.

            Regarding streams (more formally called non-navigable watercourses), such landowners are entitled to the natural and usual flow of the stream across their property. If a person wrongfully diverts the stream from its natural and usual flow or lessens the value of the stream, this is considered trespass. OCGA § 51-9-7. The same applies to underground streams and interference of the space below and above the land’s surface. OCGA §§ 51-9-8 and 51-9-9. The last grounds for bringing a trespass action is if a person wrongfully interferes with a landowner’s right of way. OCGA § 51-9-10.

            Finally, a landowner claims damages if any person wrongfully puts the landowners’ title to the property in question. OCGA § 51-9-11. When this happens, it is known as slander of title. An example would be if a person files a fraudulent deed on the public record and this deed causes the rightful owner’s title to be clouded. Clouded means that there is a possible issue with title. Wrongfully clouding title is considered an injury to real estate in Georgia.

            If you are a landowner and your enjoyment of your land is being interfered with or violated, please call us at 404-382-9994 to discuss your options.

Expiration of security deeds in Georgia

Do real estate mortgages expire after a certain amount of time? In Georgia, a security deed is the document that secures a loan on real estate. OCGA § 44-14-80 states that security deeds expire seven years after the maturity of the last installment date stated in the security deed. OCGA § 44-14-80 further says if the security deed contains no maturity date, the security deed expires after seven years.

When a security deed expires, title automatically “reverts” (goes back) to the borrower. In other words, if sufficient time has passed, the security deed is automatically cancelled. Most importantly, after the security deed is cancelled, the lender loses its lien against the property and cannot foreclose.

These concepts were the focus of a recent Georgia Court of Appeals case: Freeport Title & Guaranty. In that case, the parties disagreed whether a security deed had expired. The security deed had a space to insert a due date, but, whoever drafted the security deed, left the space blank. One party argued that the security had expired after seven years because the security deed had no maturity date. The other party responded that omitting the due date was a mistake. Instead, that party argued that the borrower and the lender had intended to include a due date.

The Georgia Court of Appeals found that the security deed had not expired after seven years. Even though the parties had not included specific date in the security deed. The court reasoned that the parties had intended to include a fixed date. In addition, the Court of Appeals ruled that the promissory note, which did include a due date, could be used to “fill in the blanks.”

The takeaway, when evaluating whether a security deed in Georgia has expired, is to consider the promissory note and the security deed . However, unlike security deeds, lenders do not record promissory notes on the public record. So getting a copy to review may be challenging.

If you have a question about a security deed, please call us at 404-382-9994 to discuss.

Adverse Possession and Property Disputes Clarified

The Georgia Court of Appeals issued a decision that provides some guidance to the often-unintuitive law known as adverse possession. In Houston v. James, A20A1689 (February 3, 2021), three siblings involved in a property dispute sued each other over a 28-acre parcel owned by their deceased father. One sibling lived on and took care of the 28 acres for more than 20 years. But his father left most of the property to the other two siblings. The sibling left out argued he owned the 28 acres by adverse possession. He claimed he had had publicly, continuously, uninterruptedly, and peaceably possessed the property for more than 20 years. His two siblings disagreed, arguing that the possession was without a “claim of right.”

To be adverse, possession must be for more than 20 years and must be public, continuous, exclusive, uninterrupted, peaceable, accompanied by a claim of right, and not originate in fraud. OCGA § 44-5-161(a). Also, and quite importantly, the party adversely possessing must have a “claim of right” to the property.

A claim of right means the possessor claims the property as his own. Under Georgia law, a claim of right, or adverse possession, will be presumed from the assertion of dominion, particularly where the possessor has made valuable improvements. See Childs v. Sammons, 272 Ga. 737, 739 (2) (534 SE2d 409) (2000). Georgia courts have held that there does not need to be direct evidence of the state of mind of the possessor concerning claim of title; however, there must be evidence of some claim of title in the sense that the possessor claims the property as his own. Walker v. Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, 285 Ga. 194, 674 S.E.2d 925 (2009).

In Houston, the Court of Appeals concluded that a jury must decide whether the sibling claiming the property by adverse possession did so with a claim of right. If you have a property dispute concerning adverse possession, please call us at 404-382-9994 to discuss your options.

Easements by Adverse Possession or Prescription

Georgia law allows a party to obtain a private way (or easement) over the land of another through a process known as prescription (also sometimes called adverse possession). See OCGA Section 49-4-40 et seq. This requires seven years’ uninterrupted use through improved lands. To show prescription, however, the party seeking an easement must show (1) uninterrupted use of the alleged private way, (2) that the private way is no more than twenty feet wide, (3) that he or she has kept the private way in repair, (4) and that the use was public, continuous, exclusive, peaceable, and accompanied by a claim of right. Finally, the use of the alleged easement must be adverse. This means that if the owner of the property gave permission to use the property, there cannot be adverse possession.

To obtain an easement over another’s land, the party seeking an easement must prove each of the above elements. All things being equal, the courts will favor the property owner over the party claiming an easement. This makes sense. Obtaining a legal right to go over someone else’s property should not be easy. On the other hand, a property owner should have some responsibility to know how his or her property is being used and to prevent unauthorized use.

A recent Georgia Court of Appeals case decided this issue. In Wilkes 581 Farms, LLC v. McAvoy, A20A1225 (September 18, 2020), a party claimed an easement over a road belonging owned by another party. The court ruled against an easement over the road because the property owner had given permission to use the road. Thus, the claim was not adverse. In other words, if a property owner gives permission, there cannot be adverse possession or prescription.

Secondarily, the court ruled that the party seeking an easement lost because he could not show his the use of the road was exclusive. Instead, the evidence showed that others used the road.

If you have an easement question or dispute, please call us at 404-382-9994.