Registration of Land Titles

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A system by which ownership of real property is established through the issuance of an official certificate indicating the name of the individual in whom such ownership is vested.

Land titles are registered through a statutory process called the Torrens title system, in somewhat the same way that automobile titles are now registered in most states. Under current Torrens acts, land ownership can be readily ascertained without any need for repeated examinations of voluminous public records, and the resulting titles are generally secure and marketable.

The torrens title system takes its name from Sir Robert R. Torrens, a native of Ireland who later became the first premier of South Australia. It is said that in 1850 Torrens first thought of applying to land the same method of registering and transferring ownership used for ships. In 1858 the first Torrens Title Act went into effect in South Australia, largely through Torrens's efforts. Although the system is known by his name, Torrens was by no means the inventor of the statutory system for land registration now in place in the United States.

Under Torrens statutes, an individual who registers title to land is required to first file an application with the appropriate court. All those who have or claim to have any interest in the property must be given notice of the proceedings so that they have an opportunity to make their claims to the land. Anyone seeking to be the registered owner of the land must show that he or she has good title "as against the world." The person need not be in actual possession of the land, however.

When title to land is established to the satisfaction of the court, it will issue a decree to settle and declare title. The decree must be entered on the records of the court and is conclusive of the rights of the parties, such as the fact of ownership and the area and boundary lines of the land. Upon registration of the decree, a designated officer, ordinarily called the registrar of titles, makes and files the original certificate of title in the proper register. A duplicate of the certificate must be delivered to the registered owner. Once this procedure has been completed, the land becomes registered land. Any subsequent transfers and dealings regarding it must be made according to statute.

Torrens acts were adopted in twenty states and territories between 1895 and 1917, but only eleven states now have title registration statutes in effect. Moreover, in those eleven states, the use of the Torrens title system remains optional and is confined to certain localities wherein only a relatively small proportion of the land is registered. Among several factors that may account for the lack of widespread acceptance of a title registration system are structural defects in some of the acts that have left numerous interests unaccounted for on the title certificate and have resulted in procedural problems in filing claims. Some people in states in which the system remains optional also have cited the high cost of initial registration as being prohibitive. Finally, title insurance companies, abstract companies, and title lawyers in general have vigorously opposed the Torrens title system because universal adoption of the system would decrease the demand for title insurance and would in effect render the need for these services obsolete.

further readings

Browder, Olin L., et al. 1989. Basic Property Law. 5th ed.


Recording of Land Titles.