Theoretically, owners of registered land are entitled to rely on the information contained in their certificates of title. To the chagrin of many, however, that is no longer the case. In its decision this week in Williams Bros. Inc. of Marshfield v. Peck (pdf), the Appeals Court affirmed a Land Court ruling that an appurtenant easement is extinguished when the dominant and servient estates are merged (however briefly), and such a common-law extinguishment trumps the conclusiveness otherwise afforded to a registered title. Specifically, the Appeals Court held that an easement over non-registered land that benefits registered land is terminated when the two parcels come into common ownership. This is the result even if the certificate of title for the registered land lists the easement as an appurtenant right, and even if the parcels are no longer commonly owned.
The Appeals Court found two points significant. First, “the protections of the registration system primarily are designed to protect the certificate holder from encumbrances on the registered parcel.” Second, and more importantly, the land registration statute specifically calls out those instances “when land registration bars changes to title by certain common-law mechanisms, such as adverse possession, implication, or necessity.” The Legislature chose not to include the extinguishment by merger of easements in its list of exceptions. The bottom line is that a purchaser of registered land who is relying on appurtenant easement rights has the burden of conducting a thorough title search to ensure that those rights still exist.