Adverse Possession

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It may surprise you to learn that there is a way to lose part of your property without selling it, against your will, and without the government condemning it for public use. This is the doctrine of adverse possession, and it has a history that is literally older than the United States, going back to English common law. Adverse possession flows from the Doctrine of Laches (equity), where a party, which would be the previous legal owner in this case, has lost its rights by failing to defend them. And this failing really is a pretty extensive failing, as you'll see in a moment - basically going to sleep like Rip Van Winkle for a goodly number of years. It isn't like today you've got a valuable property that you're using, and tomorrow you're dispossessed by some thief who snuck in during the night.

There are five elements to a successful adverse possession suit:

1) Open and notorious: You have to have openly used the property in question, in a manner observable to the general public, and in particular, the previous owner.

2) Actual possession: You must have occupied and used the property in question. Raised crops on it, improved it by building or improving something artificial on it, lived there, etcetera. Paying taxes on the property can be helpful to your case, but it isn't proof, and it doesn't prove you were in possession - actual physical control of the property concerned. You may have believed it was yours, which is why you paid taxes, but the legal owner had an equally reasonable belief: legal title. You have to show that you were in physical possession of that property.

3) Exclusive: You have to use it to the exclusion of the theoretical owner. No sneaking in only when they are not there. They must be absent - they cannot have been in possession, in control, or have been using the property themselves. If they come back and use the property, evict you for a while, etcetera, the time period starts all over.

4) Hostile and Adverse: You can't be using it by permission, otherwise all landlords would periodically have to evict every tenant. If you're paying rent, or just have permission to use the property, it all goes out the window, as that shows that the legal owner wasn't neglecting their rights. Someone using it by permission might get an easement by right of long use; they won't get fee title to the property.

5) Continuous holding period for a given number of years. This period varies from state to state, and can vary even within the same jurisdiction with differing circumstances. I've heard of times as short as seven years, and as long as twenty. Check with a lawyer in your area for what period applies to your situation. For that matter, check with a lawyer in your area on anything in this whole article. I'm not an attorney - I'm just alerting the public to the existence of adverse possession and its general characteristics.

Adverse possession applies only to land actually taken. Just because the legal owner ceded use of some small piece of the property doesn't mean you get the whole thing. Just because you have a successful adverse possession for a fence three feet from where the prior legal property line was, does not mean that you're going to get possession of an entire parcel.

Fence lines are the most common adverse possession suits. Either the owner of the property puts the fence inside their own property line, and the owner of the adjacent parcel takes over the land outside the fence, or the owner of the other property puts the fence line within the neighbors property in the first place. In either case, there's a pretty easy visual case to be made for who was in control of that land, who had possession, and that it was exclusive. That it was hostile and adverse is fairly easy, unless there's some written documentation that the legal owner gave permission. This leaves only the fifth condition, continuous possession, for the required number of years.

This has implications for buying property. If what you see on that fence line doesn't match the legal boundary, then there may be a legal case to be made that the fence line is what you get. Whether this is a good thing in that you can attach more property to what you are legally buying, or a bad thing in that you're not getting as much as you might think, the case can be made. In any case, consult an attorney.

It also has implications for selling a property. If you advertise that the property is a quarter acre, and someone legally removes some amount from that within some period after the property sells, they may have recourse upon you if they bought partially based upon your representation that the property was a quarter acre. It wasn't, really. I find it difficult to believe anyone really would sue over a fence line making their 10,890 square foot property into a 10,700 square foot one, especially when the fence line was clearly visible the entire time, but it doesn't have to be the real reason they want to do such. It might merely gives them a legal excuse for whatever their real issue is.

Another thing that adverse possession does not apply to is use of force. You cannot gain title by holding the owners captive at gunpoint, no matter how long it is. This includes armed invasion. Were the territory gained in the Mexican-American War ever reattached to Mexico, it is my understanding that according to this doctrine, the landholdings then extant would be re-asserted, even under US law, unless they were actually sold, either by the government (i.e. Gadsden Purchase) or the private entity that held title. If Antonio López de Santa Anna personally owned your property once upon a time, and the US Government took it over after the war as spoils, his heirs might still own it if they ever found out about it and filed suit. One hopes you get the idea.

Winning or losing an adverse possession case can also have property tax implications. If years ago, you bought an 8000 square foot property, and lose 2000 square feet to adverse possession, at least you'll probably get some property tax relief out of it. If you attach that 2000 square feet to your existing property through successful adverse possession, you might well get a tax bill for it.

Adverse possession is a detailed legal field with complex rules I don't pretend to understand in full, and those rules change from state to state. But it is real, and it is successfully used to take legal title to land pretty much every day.

Caveat Emptor

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on July 17, 2013 7:00 AM.

Legal Reasons for Making Late Payments on Your Mortgage was the previous entry in this blog.

Issues with Divorce and Real Estate is the next entry in this blog.

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