Land patents are one of the most misunderstood concepts of land ownership.
You may have heard a lot about these documents, but we’re here to break down the facts.
In this blog, we’re going to dive into what holding a patent means, how it was created, and how it can be useful in establishing ownership interests in real property.
Let’s get started.
1. What is a land patent?
A land patent, also called a letters patent, is a legal document issued by the federal government that grants an individual the title to land that is held by a government.
When a patent is obtained, it can be treated as any deed is treated.
2. What is the history of U.S. government-issued land patents?
Throughout the 1800s, the United States government created the General Land Office, which sought to move people off the east coast and into the woods out west through a series of land grants.
The Land Office sold public lands to those willing to venture out west not by deed, but by patents.
These patents served as the early forms of title, and they allowed people to assert their ownership against all others.
3. Who administers U.S. records pertaining to land patents?
In this article, you’ll hear us refer to both the General Land Office and the Bureau of Land Management.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the modern equivalent of the GLO.
Over time, the GLO became obsolete, and it was replaced by the BLM.
Today the BLM is the agency that maintains and administers all land patent records.
4. What information do U.S. land patents show?
Land patents show the name of the patentee, date, legal description of the land, patent number, and the land office that issued the patent.
5. What is the Land Patent Search?
The Land Patent Search is an index of federal patents from 1788 to the 1960s.
It is located at the National Archives.
The Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office (BLM-GLO) Land Patent Search is primarily for government-to-individual land conveyances in federal land states west and south of the original thirteen colonies.
The BLM-GLO Land Patent Search index only lists people who were actually granted a federal land patent.
Only about 40 percent of homesteaders finished the application process and received a legal patent for their homestead.
Even fewer (25 percent) of timberland applicants received a legal patent.
You can start by searching in this index to find the information that you need to obtain the application for patents, which may be a rich source of genealogical information about a family.
6. Are patents subject to property tax?
Yes, there’s a common misconception that you can use a land patent to renounce all federal benefits in order to avoid paying property taxes.
Unfortunately, this is not how it works.
A patent is merely useful in defining real property ownership.
It cannot appoint the property owner as king or establish a patch of land as a private fiefdom.
It does not grant you permission to dodge taxes or land use regulation.
The misunderstanding comes from the statement, “Land, protected by land patent, can’t be lawfully seized for debt or taxes.”
Individuals hear this statement and believe that patented land cannot be taxed, but this is not true.
Numerous court cases and Attorney General Opinions have ruled that owners with federal land patents are subject to taxation.
A list of a few such rulings are as follows:
Florida – Attorney General Opinion 2011-09
Ohio – Callison v Huelsman
Minnesota – County of Steele v Phillip Brase
7. Are patent lands subject to planning and zoning and other ordinances and laws?
Yes, as noted above, having a land patent does not make you exempt from zoning or planning regulation.
Although individuals do try to claim or argue that they do not need permits for certain actions because of a patent, this is untrue.
8. What is the benefit of a land patent?
At this point, you are probably wondering: what is the benefit of a land patent?
Well, there are a few potential cases where patented land does still convey a superior ownership claim.
For example, in a Michigan Supreme Court Case (Klais vs. Danowski), the court ruled that land submerged under a public lake could not be claimed by the state.
If the land had not been patented, the state government would have been able to assert a claim to the submerged portion of the property under Michigan’s Submerged Lands Act.
Thus, the patent allowed for a claim that was superior to the state in this specific case and helped preserve an owner’s right to submerged land as well as other related interests, such as oil and gas rights.
9. How do you use the Land Patent Search?
Are you interested in using the Land Patent Search index to find out if one of your ancestors was issued a patent at one point?
Here’s how you can do it.
Open the General Land Office Patent Search
Enter your zip code if required
Select any state
Enter the last name of the person receiving the patent
If necessary, enter the land description or other miscellaneous information as request
Click “Search Patents” at the bottom of the page
If the results list is too long, then you can opt to redo the search using one or more of the following to help narrow it down:
A particular state
A particular state and country
A first name
A first name and middle name
A land description
Other miscellaneous information
If the results list is too short, then you can opt to redo the search with fewer filters applied.
Here’s what you may want to do:
Delete the middle name
Delete the middle name and first name
Change a particular county to –Any County–
Change a particular state to –Any State–
Delete any other details (the fewer search parameters you use, the larger the results list will be)
Use wildcard symbols in names:
- % in place of multiple characters
- _ in place of a single character
Look for spelling variations of names
If you locate an ancestor on the results list, click on the accession number to view the patent details.
You can then view, save, and print the documents related to the patent.
While a land patent isn’t going to help you dodge taxes, it is a pretty cool concept.
If you can trace your property back to a land patent, make sure to do your research before you assume you can now stop paying taxes or complying with local laws.
There’s a lot of misinformation about what land patents are and how they affect land rights.
Please note: this article was based on my own research and consultation with several real estate lawyers. I am not a lawyer myself; therefore, please contact an attorney who specializes in land patents if you have questions about a specific case.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.