In both a tax deed barment and the subsequent quiet title, a critical part of the procedure is serving all parties with an interest in the subject property. This includes lien holders, heirs, and anyone else with a claim against the property.
Often in these situations, especially when the property is distressed or abandoned, parties connected with the property may be hard to find. The best example is the delinquent taxpayer. That party has not paid taxes for one or more years, and, many times, has abandoned possession. If the delinquent taxpayer is gone and hasn’t left a forwarding address, that party may be anywhere.
What must be done in these situations? A reasonable and diligent search must be conducted to find and serve each party that has an interest. In a barment, this requires personal service for parties residing in the county of the tax sale or certified mail for parties residing outside the county. In a quiet title, personal service is required.
What if personal service or certified mail is unsuccessful? For example, you get back the certified letter stating it is undeliverable. In those situations, you’re entitled to serve by publication. This usually means advertising notice of the barment or lawsuit in the official county newspaper for four consecutive weeks.
Sound simple . . . usually it is straightforward, but there are times when things don’t work out as expected. In a recent case, Dukes v. Munoz et al., A18A0572 (decided June 15, 2018), a tax deed holder, unable to serve the delinquent taxpayer, hired an investigator. The investigator came back saying the delinquent taxpayer could not be found after reasonable search. Relying on the investigator’s testimony, the tax deed holder barred the taxpayer’s right of redemption and filed a successful quiet title action.
Happy tax deed holder and end of story . . . not so much. Turns out that the delinquent taxpayer was a Georgia state legislator, who found out about the barment and quiet title. The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that because a Google search would have provided the address for the delinquent taxpayer, the tax deed holder had not exercised proper diligence in locating the delinquent taxpayer. Therefore, service by publication was improper and the barment and quiet title were voided; the tax deed holder was forced to incur the expense of the barment and quiet title.
The takeaway is that it’s not sufficient to use the last known address of party if that address appears invalid. The best approach, in our opinion, is to spend a little extra money to make sure parties with an interest are served and given a proper opportunity to object.