I and other family members are listed as co-owners of our family’s kuleana land on Moloka‘i and are concerned about a potential quiet title and partition lawsuit. What is a quiet title and partition lawsuit? What do I do if I’m named as a defendant in this type of lawsuit?

By Daylin Rose Heather, NHLC Staff Attorney

A “quiet title” lawsuit is a legal process to determine who owns land.

Quiet title lawsuits can be used to remove a defect on title, settle boundary disputes, or resolve a break in the property’s ownership history or “chain of title” when prior owners of a property die without a will and without having their estate probated by a court. A landowner may choose to file a quiet title lawsuit when they want to sell, lease, mortgage, or develop a property, or, in the case where the property has multiple owners, to end their shared ownership of the property.

For more information about “chain of title,” check out the June 2022 “E Nīnau iā NHLC” column available on OHA’s website.

If a landowner in a quiet title lawsuit also wants a court to force a subdivision or sale of a property having multiple owners, then the landowner could ask for a “partition.” In many ways, partition is like a divorce for real property co-ownership. Through a partition, the property may be sold or divided into smaller lots.

While quiet title and partition lawsuits can occur in a variety of situations, in Hawaiʻi these lawsuits historically have been used by large agribusinesses and land speculators to dispossess many Native Hawaiian families of their ancestral lands, including kuleana lands. If you are named as a defendant in a quiet title lawsuit, you should contact an attorney right away for legal advice.

A quiet title and partition lawsuit starts when a landowner or co-owner files a complaint in the circuit court where the property is located.

Generally, the person bringing the lawsuit then has to provide notice to all the people who may have an ownership interest in the land. If you are named as a defendant and are personally served with the complaint, you will typically have 20 days from the day you were served to file a written answer with the court. The answer is a legal document that lets the court know your response to the complaint and is often prepared by an attorney. If you need more time to file an answer, you may want to contact the plaintiff’s attorney to ask for an extension. Be sure to document any agreement in writing for your records. This can be done through a letter or e-mail.

In certain circumstances, a court may allow a plaintiff to give notice of a lawsuit by publishing a notice in the newspaper rather than personal service. If you see a notice in the paper for your family property and wish to participate in the case, you must file an answer or appear in court at the time and date stated in the published notice.

Filing an answer on time is important as it lets the court know you wish to be a party to the lawsuit. If you do not respond after receiving notice of the lawsuit, you may lose your right to participate in the case.

While participating in a quiet title and partition case could help to protect family land from sale, there are also risks and other considerations that go into deciding whether to participate in these types of cases. Because of this, it is important to consult with an attorney who handles quiet title defense matters to discuss your options.

E Nīnau iā NHLC provides general information about the law. E Nīnau iā NHLC is not legal advice. You can contact NHLC about your legal needs by calling NHLC’s offices at 808-521-2302. You can also learn more about NHLC at nativehawaiianlegalcorp.org.

The Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation (NHLC) is a nonprofit law firm dedicated to the advancement and protection of Native Hawaiian identity and culture. Each month, NHLC attorneys will answer questions from readers about legal issues relating to Native Hawaiian rights and protections, including issues regarding housing, land, water, and traditional and cultural practice. You can submit questions at NinauNHLC@nhlchi.org.