What to do if you bought land for cash and owner won’t provide proof of ownership?

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What to do if you bought land for cash and owner won’t provide proof of ownership?

Nearly 2 years ago, a friend was purchasing 3 acres of land from his sister and offered me 1 acre. I paid 10k cash and then my friend went to jail for a year. I was in correspondence with his sister the whole time, I have been living on the property since, and have all our texts back and forth. I asked for title/deed or my money back and she wanted to wait until her brother got out of jail to settle it. For the last year I have been given the runaround, someone else showed up and claimed he had bought the property and tried to evict me but couldn’t produce proof of ownership. Do I have a case? Can I get my money back or title/deed?

Asked on July 21, 2018 under Real Estate Law, Arkansas

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 3 years ago | Contributor

If there was an agreement to sell you 1 acre for $10,000 and you did your part--you paid the $10,000 (and can prove you paid; since you're the one who would be suing, you have the "burden of proof" and must establish that you complied with your obligations), you could sue the "friend" for breach of contract (for violating her contractual obligations). If you had a written agreement, your case should be straightforward and you could potentially sue to either get your money back or to have them transfer title to you as they contractually agreed to (this would be called suing for "specific performance"--forcing them to "perform" under the contract).
If you don't have a written agreement, you will have challenges and would almost certainly not be able to get title, but may be able to get your money back. The problem you face is that under what is commonly called the "Statute of Frauds," which is found at Section 4-59-101 of your state's statutes (laws), a contract for the sale of land must be in writing in order to enforce it in court; on oral (unwritten) contract is not supposed to be enforced in court. That means, you may not be able to bring a breach of contract action. You may be able to, however, sue on alternative grounds (e.g. fraud--that they lied about what they could or would do; unjust enrichment--that they are not allowed to keep your money, which you did not gift to them but gave them in exchange for something else, without providing what they were supposed to, since keeping your money without giving you anything would be "unjust") to get your money back. However, those alternate grounds would not let you get title.


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