In Florida, anyone who wants to own or possess real estate (land with or without improvements) must do so in writing by way of a Deed. The validity of that Deed will depend upon the language contained therein as well as technical issues, like signing, witnessing, notarization, etc.
There are several kinds of deeds recognized in Florida, including a general warranty deed and a special warranty deed.
The most common deed in Florida is a quitclaim deed.
What is a Quitclaim Deed?
Under Florida law, a quitclaim deed is a deed that transfers the least amount of protection to a transferee or grantee. In a quitclaim deed, the only interest being transferred to the grantee is whatever interest the transferor or grantor has in the subject property.
Essentially, the grantor transfers and releases all right, title, and interest, or claims the grantor has in the land to the grantee. There are no warranties in these deeds. In other words, there is no guarantee that the property is not subject to any liens or encumbrances or even that the grantor has the right to transfer the real estate. Zurstrassen v. Stonier, 786 So. 2d 65, 71 (Fla. 4th Dist. Ct. App. 2001).
Which means, quitclaim deeds leave the grantee vulnerable to all sorts of legal issues down the road, something we discussed before in our informative article titled Quitclaim Deed Lawsuits.
Forged Quitclaim Deeds
Unfortunately, forged quitclaim deeds are a real problem here in the Sunshine State. Under Florida case law, the act of “forgery” involves either a material alteration to a valid deed or creating an entirely false deed outright.
Why bother? The motivation for forging deeds is simple: the person wants to fool someone, usually a bank (the wrongdoer will get a cash out mortgage from an unsuspecting bank and steal the equity from an innocent homeowner). Forged deeds are often valid legal documents that have been tampered with, or “altered.” Tampering with valid deeds is perhaps easier than creating an entire forged deed from scratch.
No matter. Under Florida law, if someone erases or substitutes a name in a deed that is just as much a forgery as if they had faked the signing of someone’s name in the first place. Mann v. Mann, 677 So. 2d 62 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1996).
For example, in the Mann case, a Florida property owner’s ex-wife altered the deed to the land by “whiting out” his mother’s name as grantee and replacing it with their parties’ names. She then recorded that altered deed.
Later, the ex-husband went to court arguing that his ex-wife had altered and recorded the deed without his knowledge or consent in order to covertly procure a joint interest in the property. The ex-wife argued she did the “whiting out” on the valid deed at the request of her ex-husband, because it would save him money (avoiding payment of documentary stamps). Neither challenged that the original deed had been “whited out” with the mother’s name being removed.
The court held it was a forged deed. This is because “… any alteration of the deed by erasure or substitution of the name of the grantee is a material alteration and forgery … [and] is absolutely void and wholly ineffectual to pass title….“
Forged Deeds Are Worthless (No Legal Value)
Forged deeds are worthless. In legal terms, a forged deed is “void.”
By law, the forged deed cannot create legal title. It cannot provide any legal protections to those who want to claim rights or interests because of it.
Forged quitclaim deeds do not pass any title or legal interest in the property. They create no rights or interests in any asset or landholding whatsoever. See, e.g., Mann 677 So. 2d at 63.
What About Innocent Purchasers?
What about if the person who buys the real estate is an innocent victim of the falsehood? What if they are an “innocent purchaser” of the property?
Florida law is clear here: the forged quitclaim deed is worthless. It does not pass any legal title even if the person who buys the property is an innocent purchaser. Security Trust Co. v. Calafonas, 68 So. 2d 562 (Fla. 1953).
And recording a forged deed does not change its status and make it valid. Wright v. Blocker, 144 Fla. 428, 198 So. 88 (1940).
Generally speaking, this is true even if an innocent purchaser is involved and it doesn’t matter if the innocent purchaser suffers great financial harm as a result.
The Florida Supreme Court has held, and reaffirmed, time and again: the forged deed cannot provide any legal protection to those claiming under it, no matter how innocent they are to the fact that the deed is a forgery. See, e.g., McCoy v. Love, 382 So.2d 647, 648 (Fla.1979); Reed v. Fain, 145 So.2d 858 (Fla. 1962); Wright v. Blocker, 144 Fla. 428, 198 So. 88 (1940).
However, there may be some circumstances where the rights of an innocent third party may be protected even if he or she was the victim of a forged quitclaim deed. Countrywide Funding Corp. v. Palmer, 589 So. 2d 994 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1991).
In some situations, more than one victim may be involved in the fraud. Here, the court will consider the innocent parties who are victims of a forgery and fraud. In this situation, the law holds that the “least innocent” should suffer, but not the “more innocent” victim.
The example in Palmer involved a mother who bought property here in Florida and put title to the real estate in both her name and her son’s name. They were joint tenants with right of survivorship (JTWROS).
As JTWROS, her son could convey his interest if he chose to do so. The son wanted to sell the property (instead of stealing the property, he could have partitioned it and saved himself a big headache).
So, he forged a quitclaim deed that purported to transfer his mother’s interest in real property to him. This ended the JTWROS and created a tenancy in common. The son then sold the land to a buyer who took out a mortgage in order to make the purchase.
The forged deed was discovered, and the case went to court. The Court held that as between the two innocent parties—the mother and the buyer who took out the mortgage — the mother was the “least innocent.”
Why? By putting the deed in both her name and her son’s name, her action allowed the son to be in a position where he could convey his interest. The innocent buyer who took out the mortgage was legally held to have title to the land. Countrywide Funding Corp. v. Palmer, 589 So. 2d 994 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1991).
Statute Of Limitations
In most real estate disputes, there is a twenty (20) year deadline for asserting a legal claim. Florida Statute 95.231 provides that “[a]fter 20 years from the recording of a deed or the probate of a will purporting to convey real property, no person shall assert any claim to the property against the claimants under the deed or will or their successors in title.”
However, when a forged deed is involved there is an exception to this statutory limit on claims.
When someone wishes to challenge a deed as being a forgery, there is no deadline. There is no Florida Statute of Limitations defense, including Florida Statute 95.231, that can be asserted.
This is because under Florida law, the forged deed is “void ab initio” (void from the beginning) and can always be challenged. Thus, no limitation laws apply. Moore v. Smith-Snagg, 793 So. 2d 1000 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2001).
However, this does not mean that a forged deed has the power to keep “title” defective in perpetuity.
Marketable Record Title Act
First, under Florida Statute 712.02 (the Marketable Record Title Act (MRTA)), there is a thirty (30) year closure for all claims. This is called a “curative act.”
Under the MRTA, anyone with legal capacity to own land who has been vested with any kind of land ownership in the Florida real estate records for 30 consecutive years or more is considered to have a marketable record title free and clear of all claims, except those defined in the MRTA.
Those nine exceptions are defined in Florida Statute 712.03. They include:
(1) Estates or interests, easements and use restrictions disclosed by and defects inherent in the muniments of title on which said estate is based beginning with the root of title;
(2) Estates, interests, claims, or charges, or any covenant or restriction, preserved by the filing of a proper notice in accordance with the provisions hereof;
(3) Rights of any person in possession of the lands, so long as such person is in such possession;
(4) Estates, interests, claims, or charges arising out of a title transaction which has been recorded subsequent to the effective date of the root of title;
(5) Recorded or unrecorded easements or rights, interest or servitude in the nature of easements, rights-of-way and terminal facilities, including those of a public utility or of a governmental agency, so long as the same are used and the use of any part thereof shall except from the operation hereof the right to the entire use thereof;
(6) Rights of any person in whose name the land is assessed on the county tax rolls for such period of time as the land is so assessed and which rights are preserved for a period of 3 years after the land is last assessed in such person’s name;
(7) State title to lands beneath navigable waters acquired by virtue of sovereignty;
(8) A restriction or covenant recorded pursuant to chapter 376 or chapter 403; and
(9) Any right, title, or interest held by the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, any water management district created under chapter 373, or the United States.
Stale Claims Create Equitable Presumption
Another form of closure for real estate title records involves an equitable prohibition against stale claims. In these cases, if there is evidence of a forged quitclaim deed then the claims against it need to be pursued in a timely manner. Likewise, if a quitclaim deed is challenged as being forged and there is evidence to refute that challenge, this too must be presented without unreasonable delay.
Courts have held that the 20-year limitations deadline will apply in cases of a forged deed where there has been a long delay in asserting the “proofs of the validity or invalidity.”
Extended procrastination in challenging a forged quitclaim deed may result in Florida Statute 95.231 acting to bar the challenge and allowing the continued possession of the property (and the protection of the possessor of the tract, regardless of any alleged forgery). Whaley v. Wotring, 225 So. 2d 177 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1969).
In Whaley, the Clay County public records showed land owned by trustees Blake & Benedict as of December 1, 1897, and going back (through predecessors) to 1863. In 1908, Blake and the heirs of Benedict, by an instrument recorded in Clay County, conveyed the land to Charles A. Brown, Jr.
This deed sat in the Clay County public records for over 30 years without anyone questioning its validity. It was therefore considered a “valid root of title” when subsequent challenges to the ownership were made.
Why? In 1908, there were no claims upon the land and the records reflected a long-standing chain of title which no one ever questioned. Many years later, in the 1960s, a quiet title action was filed based upon transactions that happened prior to 1908 and the deed transfer to Mr. Brown.
The court held that the 1908 conveyance to Mr. Brown “… ripened with the expiration of time into a valid root of title within the meaning of the cited recording statutes.” Claims made against the title were precluded equitably as time-barred.
Presumptions and Burden Of Proof
Under Florida law, anyone who wants to challenge a quitclaim deed as being forged, or invalidate the deed, has the burden to provide evidence as to its invalidity or irregularity. Security Trust Co. v. Calafonas, 68 So. 2d 562 (Fla. 1953).
Burden of Proof in a Forged Quitclaim Deed Case
How much evidence? The person seeking to invalidate the deed, or who is claiming that a quitclaim deed is forged, must come forward with authenticated and admissible evidence. This can include both documents and witness testimony (including depositions or affidavits attached to summary judgment motions).
The burden of proof for a forged quitclaim deed is “by a preponderance or greater weight of the evidence.” Id.; Pate v. Mellen, 237 So. 2d 266 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1970). This is the standard burden of proof that plaintiffs must meet in a breach of contract case.
This is a great benefit to those seeking to have a quitclaim deed voided. That’s because, if the case were filed as a fraud action, then the plaintiff would have to bring forward specific evidence of the fraud. In fraud cases, the burden of proof is by “clear and convincing evidence,” which is a much higher standard. .” Pate v. Mellen, 237 So. 2d 266 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1970).
Presumptions in Quitclaim Forgery Cases
In quitclaim deed forgery cases, the courts recognize certain legal presumptions that depend upon the alteration that was made to the deed. For example, there is a presumption that if the deed alteration only related to the completion of a description in the deed’s language, then the alteration is presumed to have been made contemporaneously with the execution of the deed. Kendrick v. Latham, 25 Fla. 819, 6 So. 871 (1889).
However, if the alteration was “material” and “patent on the face of the deed,” then there is no legal presumption. The person defending the deed must show that the alteration was made before it was delivered. Harvard v. Banks, 64 Fla. 308, 60 So. 345 (1912)
Material Alteration Is Key Evidence
To prove that there has been a forged deed, there must be a material alteration to a valid deed. A “material alteration” is defined under the law as one that causes the deed to speak a language different in legal effect from that which it spoke originally. Mexican Crude Rubber Co. v. Ackley, 134 So. 585, 101 Fla. 552 (1930).
If there has only been an “interlineation” or an “erasure” on the deed’s face that alone will not be enough to find the deed was forged. Those challenging the deed, must do more. The challenging party will have to provide specific evidence of the circumstances surrounding the transaction, to demonstrate that fraud was involved. Id.; see, Stewart v. Preston, 1 Fla. 10, 1846 WL 997 (1846).
Characteristics of a Forged or Fraudulent Deed
If you are examining a quitclaim deed that purports to transfer real estate in Florida, there are certain hints or clues to look for to determine if the deed is forged, including:
- The deed doesn’t seem as if it is being used for one of the traditional purposes of a quitclaim deed, namely correcting a scriveners’ error in the legal description; or correcting the failure to add a spouse, dissolution of marriage, partition action, gift between family members, etc.
- The deed is handwritten.
- The deed does not show who created the document.
- Minimal doc stamps were paid when the deed was recorded.
- The deed shows the grantee as the person who created the document.
- The deed is recorded several months after it was allegedly executed.
- The acknowledgment (notary section) is incomplete.
- The property appraiser’s records show an out of state address for the grantor but the deed was acknowledged in Florida.
- The deed shows minimum documentary stamps. (This is the first item I look at when examining a Quit Claim Deed to determine if there is fraud).
What Should You Do About A Forged Quitclaim Deed In Your Chain Of Title?
Should you have a concern about title to your real estate or a question about the validity of a quitclaim deed found in the chain of title, then a good piece of advice is to speak with an experienced Florida real estate lawyer to learn about your rights. That’s because, in some instances, the only option maybe to file a quiet title lawsuit to clear the cloud on title caused by the forged document.
The good news is that most real estate lawyers, like Larry Tolchinsky, offer a free initial consultation (over the phone or in person, whichever you prefer) to answer your questions.
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