One of the most common questions asked of eminent domain attorneys, and probably of lawyers in every field, is “when will I get my money?”
Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this question, because every client’s situation is unique. As a case progresses, an experienced attorney may be able to give you a good estimate for when a settlement (and your payment) might be expected, but there are many moving parts that can complicate the issue.
To begin with, the length of the eminent domain process can vary dramatically depending on the type of project. A brand new eight-lane interstate will generally take a lot longer to plan and acquire land for than a small road widening to add a turn lane. Since construction on a large project can take a long time, the condemning authority may start buying up land on one end and wait years to finish buying up land on the other end.
In some cases, the condemning entity may inform property owners about a project years in advance of it actually being built (click here for a recent blog on this topic). The owners may be invited to weigh in on the project while it’s still in the planning stage – through a public seminar on the environmental impact of the project, or through a community forum to judge the need and support for the project.
After the design phase is complete, it then has to be funded. This funding is often the cause of delays or halts in in the condemning authority’s process of purchasing of land. Understandably, owners may get frustrated when they are told their property will be taken and then have to wait until the condemning entity decides it is time to pay the owner.
Coming to an agreement with the NCDOT (Or another condemning authority)
If the condemning authority has not yet filed a condemnation with the local county court for the owner’s property, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact time the owner will get his or her money. The owner may quickly come to an agreement with the NCDOT (or another condemning authority) on how much their property is worth and be paid within a few weeks, or the two sides could be so far apart that there is no choice but to wait for months or years while condemnation is filed and the issue is litigated
Even if an owner agrees to settle quickly, there could still be delays in compensation if the condemning authority’s initial estimate of “just compensation” was well below the actual fair amount the owner agrees to receive. Generally, in settlements where just compensation is more than $500,000, the settlement must be approved by the Right of Way Review Board. Additionally, if the settlement is more than $1,000,000, it must be approved by both the Right of Way Review Board and the Secretary of Transportation. This can be frustrating to an owner who finally agreed on a settlement amount and just wants to finally be paid.
Once the NCDOT has deposited the money
If the condemning authority has already filed a condemnation action in a property owner’s case, then payment becomes clearer in some aspects, and blurrier in others. When the condemnation is filed, the condemning authority must deposit what they believe is just compensation with the court. The owner may then ask the judge for all or a portion of the deposit amount, without technically accepting the DOT’s offer (We strongly encourage property owners consult with a qualified eminent domain lawyer before attempting to do this on their own).
If there are no liens on the property this is a fairly straightforward process, and can be handled in as little as a few days to a month, depending on how long the owner takes to gather paperwork and how long it takes for the judge to approve the application. However, if there are liens on the property (mortgages, back taxes, etc.) then these issues must be taken care of either before, or concurrent with, the disbursement of the deposit.
If the deposit is withdrawn and the owner still feels that the condemning authority hasn’t given them a fair price for their property, the case will head towards trial. At this point, the owner is once again in a blurry waiting game as every county is different in terms of how long a case must wait to be heard by a judge. Plus, both the property owner and condemning authority may try to lengthen the process if they are waiting on information they feel will help their case at trial.
Are you stuck in the eminent domain waiting game?
While there are not many straight-line rules, an eminent domain attorney should be able to help guide you through the process and manage your expectations when it comes to the amount and timing of your just compensation for the damage to your property.
If you’re facing land condemnation, click here to ask one of NC land condemnation attorneys when they think you might be paid. Your initial case evaluation is free.