Tennessee Supreme Court holds that family is entitled to keep its farm because it acquired “title by prescription.”

By Daniel A. Horwitz

Following a highly complex series of property conveyances, inheritances, tenancies, life estates, split tracts and quitclaims that would make even a bar exam drafter blush, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that a family is entitled to keep its farm because it acquired title to the farm “by prescription.”

In 1918, property owners conveyed their farmland to a husband and wife.  Unfortunately, in 1918, Tennessee property law was in a highly complicated “hiatus period.”  In 1913, Tennessee enacted the Married Women’s Property Act,[1] which was designed, among other things, to recognize “the right[] of a married woman to . . . manage and control her own property.”[2]  In 1919, however, the General Assembly reinstated a portion of property law that had been eliminated in 1913.  Thus, “from the period between January 1, 1914, and April 15, 1919, a conveyance of real property to a husband and wife created a tenancy in common, with no right of survivorship; at all other times . . . however, such a conveyance created a tenancy by the entirety with a right of ownership in the surviving spouse.”[3]

Fast-forwarding approximately a hundred years through a series of conveyances, inheritances and tract splits involving multiple family members, a property dispute arose over who owned a portion of the farmland in question.  One family—the Baileys—had been living on the disputed property for decades.  However, if the property law that was in effect during 1918 had been understood and applied correctly during the previous century of property transactions, then another family—the Littletons—would have had a partial ownership stake in the land.  Thus, the Littletons sued the Baileys claiming partial ownership in their farm.

Fortunately, Tennessee law has a simple way to deal with disputes like this one that don’t require reaching back a hundred years and parsing through dozens of property conveyances and inheritances in an effort to retroactively fix earlier misunderstandings.  Under the doctrine of “title by prescription,” an individual can acquire full ownership over shared property—regardless of whether or not she was otherwise the rightful owner of all of it to start with—if she satisfies the following three criteria:

  1. She must have been “in exclusive and uninterrupted possession of the land for a period of twenty years or more, claiming the land as h[er] own without any accounting” to the other owners;
  1. The other owners “must have been under no disability to assert their rights during the prescriptive period of twenty years”; and
  1. Her occupancy “must have been without the permission, actual or implied,” of the other owners.[4]

In this instance, the Baileys satisfied each of these criteria, so the Tennessee Supreme Court awarded them full ownership of the farm.  First, the Baileys demonstrated that they had “enjoyed complete and uninterrupted use” of the disputed property for fifty-seven years.[5]   Second, the Baileys demonstrated that the Littletons had not been under a legal “disability” at any point during the prescription period, because in the context of title by prescription, “disability” only refers to someone who cannot assert his interests “because of age or mental capacity.”[6]  Third, the Court held that “the Littletons have made no claim of . . . having granted permission for or openly indulging the Baileys’ possession” of the disputed property.”[7]

Thus, the Supreme Court of Tennessee concluded, “the Baileys have acquired title by prescription,” and they were entitled to keep their farm.

Read the Court’s unanimous opinion in Roberts v. Bailey, authored by Justice Gary Wade, here.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

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[1] In Tennessee, the law is frequently called the “Bejach Law” for its state House sponsor, Representative Lois D. Bejach.

[2] Roberts v. Bailey, No. E201301950-SC-R-11-CV, 2015 WL 4594059, at *4 (Tenn. July 31, 2015) (alteration in original) (quoting Amy D. Ronner, Husband and Wife Are One—Him: Bennis v. Michigan as the Resurrection of Coverture, 4 Mich. J. Gender & L. 129, 134 (1996)).

[3] Id. at *4 (citing  Moore v. Cole, 289 S.W.2d 696 (Tenn. 1956)).

[4] Id. at *5 (quoting England v. England, No. E2011–02094–COA–R3–CV, 2012 WL 4503434, at *5–6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 2, 2012) (citing Livesay v. Keaton, 611 S.W.2d 581, 583–84 (Tenn.Ct.App.1980))).

[5] Id. at *6.

[6] Id. at *6 (citing Tenn. Dep’t of Transp. v. Patrick, No. W2001–00397–COA–R3–CV, 2001 WL 1683751, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 27, 2001);  Scruggs v. Baugh, 3 Tenn. App. 256, 263 (1926)).

[7] Id. at *7 (quotation omitted).