Will neglect result in loss of ownership over property?

By Atty. Eduardo T. Reyes III 

Perhaps because of the pandemic, some inattention to the care of our properties is excusable. But under normal circumstances, will the law forgive the long neglect of one’s property?

Especially in respect to land, which is real property, mindfulness of its concerns is of primordial importance.

But first, we must distinguish between titled land and untitled ones.

Under the Torrens law, when a plot of land is registered and issued a Torrens title, the same enjoys ample protection.

One, the person or corporation whose name appears on the title enjoys the strong presumption of rightful ownership.

Two, even if another person possesses the property adversely, the length of time of possession is immaterial for purposes of acquisitive prescription as the registered owner can get back their land at any time.

However, for unregistered lands, owners must be extra wary as the adverse possession by another can result in ripening of the possession into ownership. The possessor for a period of 10 years for good faith possession, and 30 years for possession not in good faith, can become its owner.

But the distinction between a titled property and an untitled one only applies to the mode of losing property by the adverse possession of another or through acquisitive prescription.

Laches, however, is an entirely different concept altogether.

In Ernesto Lorenzo, Manuel Lorenzo, Conchita Lorenzo-Bruno, Adoracion Suelen, Avelina Suelen, and Heirs of Rodolfo Lorenzo v. Fortunata D. Eustaquio and children, namely: Angelito, Jose, Alegria, Leonida, Teofilo, Delfin, Jr., Alejandro all surnamed Eutaquio (Heirs of Delfin Eustaquio, Sr.), G.R. No. 209435, which came down on August 10, 2022, it was concluded that True, the subject land is registered under the Torrens system. Nevertheless, an ownership of registered land may be lost through laches. The Court has applied the doctrine of laches in numerous cases due to a party’s failure for a considerable length of time to institute an action to enforce his/her claim”.  

                Laches in other words, means the neglect by the owner of a tract of land (or any property for that matter) to enforce their rights over the same “for an unreasonable length of time”.

But is the word “unreasonable” capable of mathematical computation?

Case law says that it depends on the facts of the case. Although, in CATHOLIC BISHOP OF BALANGA, represented by CRISPULO TORRICO v. THE HON. COURT OF APPEALS and AMANDO DE LEON, G.R. No. 112519 November 14, 1996, the following time-frames had convinced the Supreme Court of their unreasonableness thereby finding that laches had set in:  “In applying the doctrine of laches, we had ruled that where a party allows the following number of years to lapse from the emergence of his cause of action, before instituting court action to enforce his claim, such action would be barred by the equitable defense of laches: 36 years; 12 years; 50 years; 34 years; 37 years; 32 years; 20 years; 47 years; 11 years; 25 years; 40 years; 19 years; 27 years; 7 years; 44 years; 4 years and 67 years”.  

                Thus, it must be underlined that while acquisitive prescription cannot trigger the loss of ownership by a Torrens title holder, laches which, as already said, refers to the long neglect of property, can be a legal reason for one to lose their property.

The rationale for laches was explained in Lorenzo v. Estaquio in this fashion:

Courts cannot look with favor at parties who, by their silence, delay and inaction, knowingly induce another to spend time, effort, and expense in cultivating the land, paying taxes and making improvements thereon for an unreasonable period only to spring an ambush and claim title which the possessor’s efforts and the rise of land values offer an opportunity to make easy profit at their own expense. Considerable delay in asserting one’s right before a court of justice is strongly persuasive of the lack of merit of his claim, since it is human nature for a person to enforce his right when same is threatened or invaded; thus, it can also be said that petitioner is estopped by laches from questioning private respondent’s ownership of the subject property. At any rate, petitioner’s right to recover the possession of the subject property from private respondent has, by the latter’s long period of possession and by petitioner’s inaction and neglect, been converted into a stale demand. Such passivity in the face of what might have given rise to an action in court is visited with the loss of such right, and ignorance resulting from inexcusable negligence does not suffice to explain such failure to file seasonably the necessary suit”.

Thus, just like in anything in life, mindfulness of one’s property and affairs is of utmost priority. Leaving something (or worse, someone) forlorn is such a terrible tragedy that ebbs life from it (or them).

(Atty. Eduardo T. Reyes, III is the senior partner of ET Reyes III & Associates- a law firm based in Iloilo City. He is a litigation attorney, a law professor and a law book author. His website is etriiilaw.com).