Q: Years ago, my wife’s grandmother left three small parcels of land that were described in the estate papers. These properties are located in a swamp and the estate was unable to find a buyer for them.

A quit claim deed was issued to transfer ownership of the property from my grandmother’s estate. During these past years, a number of relatives were in possession of the deed. Later, my wife took possession of the deed. We were informed that many years of back taxes were long overdue. These were paid and she has paid the yearly taxes on this property for the past 20 years.

What is a quit claim deed? Do the descendents of her grandmother have any legal standing concerning the property? What procedures can she take to either sell or donate the property? And, do you have any other suggestions on what she can do with it?

A: A quit claim deed (sometimes referred to inaccurately as a “quick claim” deed), is a legal document used to transfer any ownership one has in a piece of real estate to another person.

I could sign and record a quit claim deed granting you my interest in the Sears Tower in Chicago — except I don’t have an ownership interest in that property. So, the quit claim deed would be worthless.

A quit claim deed is easy and cheap to complete and record, and does the job of transferring ownership interests from one party to another.

If the deed was prepared and recorded correctly, and if the rightful owner of the property was your wife’s grandmother, the person named in the quit claim deed would be the legal owner of the property.

While I’m not a real estate attorney, you might want to talk to an attorney about your issues, particularly since you seem to indicate that the quit claim deed was passed on between members of the family. Unlike title to a car or boat, the original quit claim deed would ordinarily only transfer title of the land from the rightful owner to the person named on the deed.

If you are not named on the deed, you might have an interest in the land by inheriting the property from the person named on the deed. Your wife might also be able to claim ownership of the property if your wife lived on the property or used the property to the exclusion of others, including other family members, paid the real estate taxes on the home for many years. In some states, you have to have lived or used the property for up to 21 years. In other states, the timeline is shorter depending on the circumstances.

If you want to be sure there are no “clouds” on the title to the properties, you can hire a real estate attorney or title company to look at the chain of title, which is the line of ownership through the years.

If your wife decides to sell or donate the properties, she should first establish whether there is any value to the land. A local real estate agent should be able to assist. Look for someone with experience selling property in the area.

If the properties have value, then your wife can hire an agent to try to sell them. (She could sell them herself, although that might be difficult and time-consuming, especially if she doesn’t live near the properties and if the properties are still swamp lands.) She can also give them away and take a deduction on her income tax return.

If the properties are valueless, your wife may have trouble selling them or giving them away. At that point, you should speak with a real estate attorney who, after determining if your wife owns the properties, can determine how she can get rid of the properties.

Jan. 19, 2009.