Medieval law creates real estate risks

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Cold, dark and long winters can make the transition for newcomers in Norway tough enough, without the added burden of having to interpret ancient, peculiar laws. An immigrant family from Holland found this out the hard way, according to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).

The sale of rural properties in Norway can be a complicated and hazardous business. PHOTO: Views and News

Odelsrett, a uniquely Norwegian legal principle dating back to medieval times, gives priority to direct descendants in purchasing agricultural land that has been farmed and in the family for more than 20 years. In 2006, Martin De Goijer moved his family to Nome municipality in Telemark County, from Utrecht, Holland, in order to invest in and run a small farm. This type of immigration has been in strong demand in rural municipalities that are struggling with depopulation and aging residents. But when the seller’s brother claimed ownership rights based on Odelsrett, reports DN, the Dutch family was left confused and farmless behind.

Odelsrett is an allodial title, meaning that it establishes independent ownership of property. The oldest child will have first rights to a property in the event of death or sale. If the recipient declines, the next in age will be entitled, and so on. If no “Odels” or entitled family members claim it, the land can be sold on the open market, but family members retain the right to file a claim rejecting the sale of land for up to one year, unless they have clearly renounced their entitlement.

Odelsrett can be relinquished through a verbal declaration in the presence of witnesses. Although the De Goijer family had been informed of the principle, they had also been assured that all entitled family members had verbally declined their right to the property and so the Dutch couple signed their contract.

Rural Norwegian dream became a nightmare
The bliss of owning a small farm in Norway did not last long. One day later, they were informed by their real estate broker that the seller’s brother would be filing a claim for the property and surrounding land, at a much lower price. It seems they had purchased themselves right into a heated family dispute.

The law allowing the claim is uniquely Norwegian, and what historically was intended to preserve farmland and protect family ownership has become an obstacle to others wishing to settle in rural Norway. Young families like the De Goijers are an attractive commodity in rural communities, as they bring down the average age, are likely to draw more tax money in the form of investment in schools and medical facilities and bring added support and labor to the community.

De Goijer’s wife is an attorney, and the couple attempted to research the law before entering into contract, but found it confusing. Their real estate broker reportedly is not taking responsibility for their predicament. According to Professor Thor Falkanger of the University of Oslo, elements of the law can be found in other countries, but the complex system that makes up Norwegian Odelsrett is unique. “Foreign attorneys would probably consider this a very strange legal principle,” he told DN.

After a lengthy legal battle, the Lower Telemark Municipal Court (Tingrett) ruled against Martin and Marlies De Goijer’s legal claims. The family has temporarily rented a different farm, is taking losses on the forced sale to the brother, and is now liable for legal fees for both their own and opposing counsel. Despite the difficulties they encountered in making the move to Norway, Martin De Goijer told DN “we’re staying,” although he had to think twice when asked whether he feels welcome.

Views and News from Norway/Liv Buli
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