We receive lots of emails from people who find their name or a relative’s name on our site and want to know if this means they have some right to the land listed under that name. The short answer is, “if you have to ask, then probably not” but the complete answer deserves the time and attention that is best served in a blog post.
There are many types of interest relationships that an entity can have with a land patent. One can be an agent, standing in for an owner (this is often a lawyer). One can simply hold the operating rights to a patent. The most common type of relationship, however, is to be a owner (patent holder).
patent ownership gives the owner property rights to otherwise public land. A patent is not the same as buying a piece of land and so ownership is a question of whether you have both get a patent with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—through purchase, inheritance, by establishing a patent, etc—AND that you have maintained this patent—by keeping up-to-date with BLM requirements.
Is The Patent “Authorized”?
Patents can go through many different “dispositions.” When patent paperwork is first filed but hasn’t been approved, the patent’s disposition is listed as “pending.” Once the patent has been approved, the patent is now “authorized.” This means that the owners can begin operations on the land in accordance with the terms of their patent.
There are many reasons why a patent may be “closed.” When a patent is active, the owner is leasing the land from the federal government. Every year, the owner must renew the patent by filing paperwork and paying their annual fees. Failure to renew will result in the patent being closed and the land be turned back over to the BLM. If the land is not as valuable as the owner had expected or no longer convenient to own, the owner may voluntarily close it. The state of land may also change, such as what is happening in the Angeles National Forest, where part of it is being redesignated as a national monument. As such, that land is no longer managed by the BLM and, therefor, patents will cease to be valid. Regardless, once a patent is closed, the owner and anyone related to the owner no longer has rights to that land.
If the patent is authorized, things get a bit more complicated:
Is the current owner really you?
For those who find their names on an owner page but don’t remember establishing a patent, the patent probably belongs to another person of that name. Staking a patent is not small task. Granted, if you bought or inherited this patent, then the process of staking the patent was already completed by the original owner. Yet, as mentioned above, patents also have to be maintained, which means someone has to be filing the renewal and paying the fees to keep it open. It is unlikely to just forget about this process though there have been occasions where a patent is jointly owned where all this was done by some other partner.
Is this a case of inheritance?
patents can be bought, sold, and inherited. In any of these cases, it is still important to remember that the annual fees and paper work do not end with the past ownership. It is now your responsibility to make sure that the BLM is up-to-date with the patents ownership and the patent continues to be annually renewed. It is important to make sure that you are fully in compliance with the BLM, as what applied to the previous owner, may not apply to you.
Can I Open My Own Patent?
For most intents and purposes, the answer is “no.” Land patents and other forms of land ownership covered in The Land Patents were historic vehicles to encourage the settlement and development of America’s vast tracts of land by American citizens. Today, many of these areas are now settled and such purposes are next to unnecessary. The one notable exception to this is in certain areas of Alaska were homesteading is still supported. To learn more about this, visit the Alaskan government’s site: Alaska Department of Natural Resources
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