SHERIDAN — The city of Sheridan began working this week to resolve confusion surrounding claims to some plots in the Sheridan Municipal Cemetery that stem from inconsistent record keeping and spotty reporting on the part of deed holders.
Verifying the ownership of deeds to plots in the municipal cemetery has been complicated by incomplete, and sometimes contradictory, cemetery records, according to City Attorney Brendon Kerns.
Since the cemetery’s establishment in 1895, the policies for managing deeds have changed multiple times — resulting in different deeds filed with different offices — and control of many of the deeds have passed through several different hands.
The problem is common among municipal cemeteries, Kerns said, particularly because plot deeds are frequently transferred among family members through quitclaims — legal renunciations of ownership of a deed, allowing it to be transferred.
But a quitclaim deed is not proof of ownership, it just documents the transfer of ownership from one person to another. Theoretically, someone could create a quitclaim deed to “transfer” a plot they do not own. The document would be meaningless, but if the receiving party is unaware the transfer was fake the deed could be quitclaimed several more times.
Even legitimate quitclaims have created issues. Often, deed holders make quitclaim transfers without reporting the change in ownership. Unreported transfers open gaps in the city’s cemetery records and those gaps grow wider with every subsequent unreported quitclaim.
Cemetery Coordinator Josh Morgan said he, with the help of the city attorney, has to bridge those gaps and establish a clear chain of ownership before he can honor a deed.
“It can be difficult to trace those back through multiple generations,” Morgan said.
Morgan, who took over at the cemetery three years ago, said he has not yet been presented with a deed that the city couldn’t verify, but noted that some deeds took several months to authenticate.
Kerns said several of the plots in the Sheridan Municipal Cemetery have not been platted, either, which further complicates the assessment of some deeds because there is no official record of the plot the deed holder is claiming.
How the city addresses the confusion surrounding some of its cemetery records will be up to Sheridan City Council. Kerns discussed the issue with council during its study session Monday and suggested two potential changes the city could make to improve the clarity of the city’s cemetery records going forward.
The first, and most comprehensive solution, Kerns said, would be to hire a surveyor to plat all of the unplatted and incorrectly platted areas of the cemetery and file the deeds for those areas with the Sheridan County Clerk’s Office.
All of the city’s land records have to be filed with the County Clerk’s Office. But Kerns also suggested council consider housing all of the city’s cemetery records with the county, as the county already has a proven record management system in place, while the city’s maintenance of cemetery records has historically been inconsistent.
City staff made a rough estimate that platting the unplatted plots would cost $150,000.
The second option Kerns presented council was to prohibit the selling or transfer of cemetery plots without city approval and let the city clerk manage the records.
That option would give the city a better handle on its cemetery records going forward, but it would do little to address some of the existing issues contributing to the confusion over those records.
Mayor Roger Miller said he was in favor of the first option, as it would correct one of the city’s fundamental shortcomings with regard to cemetery records.
“I think it would behoove us for the future generations of the city to correct this,” Miller said. “Take the action, take the funding and get it all brought up to speed as of 2020.”
Council members were not opposed to the mayor’s suggestion, but said they want to see what exactly platting the cemetery would cost before committing to that course of action.
In the interest of obtaining that information for council, Kerns said city staff will put together a request for proposals and present the bids the city receives at a future council meeting.