Any time you transfer real property—even if it is just to a family member—it is important to observe all required legal formalities. Deeds are not informal affairs. Certain defects in drafting or recording a deed can render a property transfer null and void, and that can have significant legal consequences, sometimes years after the fact. A recent New York case illustrates what can go wrong when a deed is not properly drafted.
The Case of the Missing Property Description
A husband and wife purchased a house in Brooklyn in 1938. The husband died in 1980, leaving the wife as sole owner. The couple also had a son and daughter. In 1999, the wife and her son visited a local attorney, at which time the wife signed a quitclaim deed purportedly transferring title to the house to her son and herself as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. In other words, when either the wife or son passed away, the survivor would become sole owner of the house.
Six years later, however, the wife signed another deed which purportedly transferred the Brooklyn property in its entirety to her daughter. The wife died in 2007. The daughter was named executor of her mother's estate. The son later sued the daughter, arguing he was the “sole and rightful owner” of the Brooklyn home under the 1999 deed.
ButKings County Supreme Court, and later theAppellate Division, Second Department, ruled the daughter was actually the rightful owner under the 2005 deed. The 1999 deed was, in the Supreme Court's words, a “nullity.” Why was this the case? Because the 1999 deed failed to include a description of the property.
As Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge David I. Schmidt explained, the 1999 deed recorded with the Kings County Clerk's Office contained a “completely blank space … in the place for describing the property being conveyed.” Another copy of the deed, from the files of the attorney who prepared it, included a separate page containing an appendix with a detailed property description. But there was no evidence this appendix was ever part of the document actually signed by the wife in 1999. Therefore, Judge Schmidt said, the 1999 deed was never a valid transfer of title to the Brooklyn property. “[A] deed totally lacking a property description when executed constitutes a nullity,” Judge Schmidt said, adding, “even if someone subsequently inserts a description.”
The 2005 deed, in contrast, contained a standard legal description of the property, which the son conceded accurately described his mother's house. Accordingly, that deed was valid, meaning the daughter was lawfully the sole owner of the property.
Avoiding Defective DeedsAn important lesson from the above case is you should always hire an experienced New York real estate attorney whenever you plan to buy, sell or transfer property to someone else. Even if it is a seemingly simple case of giving your home to a child, any mistake can lead to costly and unnecessary litigation later on. Contact our office today if you would like to speak with a qualified real estate attorney right away.