Ensuring the Legal Transfer and Ownership of Property
One of the most important aspects of the law for many is in ensuring the true legal ownership of property. This goes for both personal property (cars, furniture, etc.) and real property (land and fixtures to land like houses). People want to know they "legally" own their property, or that property they have transferred to another is legally under the other's ownership. Without the proper transfer of property, people know they face lawsuits or worse.
First, when it comes to transferring personal property the legal requirements are usually less complex than with real property. Some property like vehicles and boats involve the transfer of titles under the requirements of agencies like the department of motor vehicles. However, most personal property can be legally transferred by oral agreement usually involving a quid pro quo. In determining ownership, the law looks to the intentions of the parties and outward actions/communications of offer and acceptance. If one party communicates an offer of selling an item of personal property for a certain amount and the other side accepts, then the transfer of the money and property changes ownership. For the practical reason of proving the contract between parties and resulting transfer of ownership, it is wise to have parties sign a written memorialization. However, for most items of personal property this is not required, and proof of the oral contracting can be enough.
When transferring or receiving ownership of personal property by gift, the law again looks to the intention of the parties. When one party communicates the intention and transfers property as a gift, and the other party accepts the gift, the ownership has transferred. Unlike with the transfer of real property, when transferring property by gift (same as with a quid pro quo) the receiver has full ownership and cannot be legally held to follow any stipulations with the property once ownership transfers. In other words, the giver may ask the receiver to do something with the property (like give it to someone in a later generation), but the new owner has no legal obligation to that end. Note: When a party abandons real property (like leaving it out with trash) and another party takes possession of the property, that new party owns the abandoned property. This would not be the case if property is found that was not reasonably considered abandoned by the owner, like something falling out of someone's pocket or left behind.
Transferring Real Property is more complex. First, by the legal doctrine of "Statue of Frauds" contracts dealing with land must be put in a writing signed by the party against whom a lawsuit is brought against for the courts to allow the contract as evidence to prove the transfer. In other words, courts will not hear evidence of an oral contract to transfer land. Additionally, with land the legal requirement is that the transfer is made by a Deed signed by the person transferring land to another and that the Deed is recorded in the respective county register of deeds office. In the event of two deeds transferring the same real property, the one recorded first is recognized as the legal transfer document. The "chain of title" for real property, showing the transfer of ownership back to the earliest date of the earliest owner (which could go back hundreds of years to the person discovering or conquering the land) is critical for showing legal ownership. Any mortgages by lenders to real property should be recorded to be recognized as a legal interest on the land for the event of foreclosure.
The difference with real property and other property comes with more limited transfers of ownership. Again, a transfer of personal property always gives a 100% ownership interest in the party or parties who have received the property. Real property is different. First, real property is always subject to the government taking land (giving reasonable compensation) by the power of "eminent domain". This is unusual, but if your land is in the path of a planned interstate or military base, the government can take it for public use. Second, real property can be transferred subject to future stipulations. For example, land could be transferred to one party but subject to a "life estate" of another. By Last Will and Testament, a husband and father could transfer land to his children subject to a life estate to his wife. In that case, the wife has ownership until she dies, then the real property reverts to the children. There are other such stipulations which can be put on land limiting the ownership of the person receiving real property.
Because real property transfers have more complex legal requirements, it is always best to have an attorney conduct title searches to find possible defects of title, and draw up Deeds and other contracts with the proper legal requirements. Lawyers understand the legal stipulations (or "tails") one can put on land, and understand the "Rule Against Perpetuities" which limits the amount of time the person transferring land can limit full ownership of later persons receiving the land.
Understand the basics, but also understand when attorneys should be involved and you cannot go wrong!