What is adverse possession?
Adverse possession makes it is possible for squatters or neighbors to acquire legal ownership of land and property if they meet the right legal requirements.
It can be surprising to hear that property ownership can transfer without the owner’s consent. The reasoning behind adverse possession is based on avoiding waste. The legal system wants property to be used productively, so it will grant ownership to somebody who uses the property over a long period of time.
However, property rights are very important in US law, and the bar for adverse possession is set very high. Different states have different standards, but there are general requirements to prove that a person has acquired property by adverse possession.
How to acquire property through adverse possession
The person seeking to acquire the land must prove that they possessed the land for a certain period of time, usually 10-20 years, in the following ways:
Open and notorious – This means that the non-owner must prove that they possessed the property publically and obviously. They do not need to announce their ownership, but must act as though they were the actual owner of the property by using it in the way that a real owner would. Sneaking and hiding your use of the property will not meet this condition. Living normally in a house, parking in a driveway, or working in a garden would all probably meet this condition.
Continuous – The possession of the property must be unbroken and part of a continuous pattern. The non-owner does not need to be on the property 24/7, but they cannot have clear breaks in their use of the property. For example, mowing the lawn once a week is probably continuous enough to count, but visiting the property once a month probably is not.
Exclusive – The non-owner cannot share the property with the actual owner, so co-owners cannot adversely possess the other owner’s share. Thus, a person could not adversely possess their spouse’s shared interest in a home. However, 2 non-owners can acquire an equal share in property through adverse possession if they meet the other requirements.
Hostile – The non-owner cannot adversely possess property if they have permission by the owner to use that property. However, this could lead to the creation of an easement in certain situations. Giving permission for a neighbor to plant a tree or hedge, or to use a path, would therefore not lead to adverse possession.
Protecting your property
If you own property you might be concerned about encroaching neighbors or squatters. Perhaps your neighbor keeps mowing some part of your lawn thinking it is theirs, or you know of some squatters who are camping on the fringes of your property. There are several ways that you can protect your property.
If a person is on your property you may be able to take civil legal action. A civil lawsuit under trespass can help you recover from damage to the property and an action to quiet title can resolve a dispute over actual ownership of property. You should consult with a lawyer when pursuing these options due to the potential damage to your property rights by missing important procedural or legal details.
The various states differ on how they treat trespassing as a criminal offense. Generally, however, you can contact law enforcement to report trespasses on your property. This can lead to criminal charges for the trespasser.
However, there are ways to ensure your property rights are protected without taking the drastic step of initiating legal action against a person. Depending on the laws in your state, you may be able to avoid adverse possession by granting limited and short-term permission to a person.
Discussion with a neighbor or user of the property could resolve the issue as well. Recall that you might have to live next to or near the other parties for the long term, and legal action can create difficult social consequences.
Ultimately, contacting a real estate or property lawyer will be the safest course for protecting your rights.