Land titles swept by ‘Yolanda’
As life returns to normal in the areas that bore the brunt of Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” owners of real properties whose houses were destroyed face a serious legal problem.
The strong winds and storm surge carted away not only their furniture and appliances but also important documents, such as birth certificates, academic records, family photos and, most importantly, proofs of ownership of lots and agricultural land.
It is common practice in rural and less urbanized areas in the country for residents to keep land or Torrens titles at home.
Although some banks in these places maintain safety deposit boxes, most Filipinos feel more secure keeping their titles close to them or within easy reach. This is understandable because land ownership is considered a measure of success for our countrymen and the title is proof of that achievement.
When the supertyphoon hit land, protecting those documents was the least of the affected residents’ concern. Saving their lives and those of their loved ones was uppermost in their minds.
And even if these documents survived the deluge, most likely they’re either completely soaked, mutilated or have been rendered unreadable because of prolonged exposure to the elements.
In a radio interview, an official of the Land Registration Authority, the government office tasked with keeping records of land ownership and protecting their integrity, said the certificates of ownership of real properties in Tacloban City and other affected areas in Leyte were intact.
He stated that although the office of the register of deeds of Tacloban City was damaged, the vault that contains original copies of land titles was practically unscathed.
It helped that the vault and its cement enclosure are strong and tightly sealed. Except for minor damage caused by water seepage, the integrity of the documents was not adversely affected.
Had the vault not survived “Yolanda” and suffered the same fate that befell other heavy structures in the area (like the three steel-hulled ships that were lifted from the sea and dumped inland), property owners in Leyte would have faced serious problems.
Mercifully, they avoided the experience that Quezon City residents went through when, in 1988, a fire almost gutted the Quezon City Hall. The blaze burned down the local registry of deeds and the original copies of the land titles in its custody.
The loss resulted in an unprecedented land ownership mess. Con artists took advantage of the situation and duped countless land owners and buyers of real properties with spurious documents.
Twenty-five years after that calamity, many of the legal disputes that arose from the reconstitution of the burned titles are still pending in court.
Although original copies of transfer certificate of title (TCT) are in the register of deeds’ custody, prudence requires that the property owners concerned maintain duplicate copies of those titles in their possession.
These documents constitute proof of ownership that establishes their right to build physical structures on them or, if they desire, to sell or convey them to third parties.
On the long term, the same properties will form part of the material legacy that their owners will pass on to their heirs when they kick the bucket.
But the most important consideration for securing a duplicate TCT is to minimize, if not avoid, the possibility of criminal elements using falsified or spurious copies of those documents to victimize unwary buyers of real estate in the area.
For the protection of property owners who lost their TCTs, it is essential that they immediately take the proper steps to judicially reconstitute those documents.
A certified copy of the title on file with the register of deeds is not considered proof of ownership that gives its indicated owner the right to sell, mortgage or do business over the property it represents.
The problem is, reconstituting or getting a replacement for a lost title is not easy. Under existing rules, the property owner has to file a petition for that purpose with the regional trial court, and that requires a lot of money in terms of filing fees, publication expenses and lawyer’s fees.
Worse, the judicial system in Tacloban is still on a standstill because the courtrooms have not yet been repaired and electric power has yet to be restored.
Under the circumstances, the Land Registration Authority and the Supreme Court should come up with a system that would enable property owners in the affected areas to reconstitute their lost TCTs with the least expense and effort.
Since the rules governing that process are embodied in the Rules of Court, the tribunal can, on its own, make the proper adjustments in the procedure without sacrificing the need to ensure that the reconstituted title is issued to its rightful owner.
Thus, for example, the documentary evidence required to be presented can be reduced to the minimum, the publication requirement relaxed, and the filing and other court fees reduced.
On the part of LRA, it can ease the procedure for securing certified copies of documents in its custody and waive the fees imposed for such official issuances.
The idea is, the reconstitution process should be made expeditious and inexpensive as much as possible to give the affected property owners the peace of mind that their rights over the fruits of their hard work are amply protected by law and the government.
By restoring proofs of ownership promptly to their owners, the covered properties will seize to be in limbo and be able to regain their standing in the commercial community.
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