Do you own the mineral rights to your land?

One question with which many Northeastern Ohio residents are grappling is who owns the mineral rights under their land holdings.

The surge of natural gas exploration has been a boon for many property owners in the tri-state region of eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. But before anyone can profit from the sale of discovered natural resources, a clear title must be produced in order to legally harvest them.

It’s my land, so it’s my minerals, right?

Unfortunately, this is not always the case, but rather a common misconception. While each situation is unique, it is quite common for the surface estate (the land and properties above ground) and the mineral estate (what lies beneath) to be separate entities. If you have acreage that you own free and clear, you could be chagrined to discover that someone else entirely owns or leases your mineral rights.

It’s also possible that one or more individuals or companies may own the mineral rights and another has the royalty rights of any minerals that are subsequently discovered on the property. It’s a little confusing, but whomever granted the royalty deed is the actual owner of the minerals, and that person or entity retains that ownership. The developer with the royalty rights will reap the profits, however.

How can I find out if I own the mineral rights?

The only way to determine whether you own the rights is to run an abstract of your property. You will need to head over to the clerk of court’s office in the county where the property is located in order to do this, and you will also need to know the legal description of the property.

Working backwards, your goal is to establish a “chain of title,” which is the sequential record detailing the transference of ownership of the mineral rights of the property in question. This is done by poring over the index books of mortgages and conveyances at the civil clerk’s office.

Can anyone do this?

Theoretically, yes, and as all are public records, if you do the abstract yourself, it is free of charge. However, depending upon the history of the property, the process may be quite tedious and complex if it has changed hands many times, been encumbered by liens or foreclosures or been subject to litigation.

How do I start?

Ideally, you will have a property description to use that will tell you which tract index book you will need to begin the abstract. In cases where the property description is unknown, begin with the grantor/grantee index book and search under names that you know or think were associated with your property.

For instance, let’s say that you inherited some land from your parents, who also inherited it from your paternal grandparents. Working back from your parents’ ownership of the property, you can follow the chain of ownership backward to determine whether the mineral rights are free and clear or otherwise encumbered.

The following records and documents should all be thoroughly reviewed to determine ownership:

  • Probate records
  • Affidavits
  • Divorce settlements
  • Tax sales
  • Liens
  • Forclosures
  • Mortgages

Your chain of title must be free of gaps. This could be very important to determining your right to sell or profit from any natural gas or oil discovered on the property.

Suppose that you found a lease that granted an oil company certain rights, yet you lack the source deed describing the acquisition of the interest. To legally sell or transfer the mineral rights, this would need to be remedied.

If the mere thought of this paper chase is mind-boggling to you, take heart. There are legal professionals who run property abstracts for a fee, and you can contact someone in the industry to assist you with this task.