How Does Adverse Possession Affect Property Ownership?
One way that property owners exercise their property rights is by evicting trespassers, and owners should take care to monitor their properties and exercise that right. In situations where squatters occupy property for a lengthy continuous and uninterrupted period of time, owners can lose their property rights if they fail to intervene, and the squatters can acquire legal ownership of the occupied property. This legal doctrine is called adverse possession.
The criteria to obtain ownership of property through adverse possession now vary from state to state, but the principle originated in common law. The doctrine of adverse possession evolved from a desire to ensure efficient land use and reward people who are using the land. The idea is that owners abandoning their property through continuous neglect and disuse lose their right of ownership.
The actions that support a claim for adverse possession need not be intentional. For example, landowners may misinterpret the boundaries of their property and use or improve a neighboring property. If all requirements of an adverse possession claim are proved, a court will order transfer of the title deed to the property from the owner to the squatter.
What Are the Requirements to Obtain Ownership Through Adverse Possession?
To succeed in a claim of ownership through adverse possession, the use and/or possession of the property must be as follows:
- Hostile—In the context of adverse possession, the term “hostile” simply denotes “under a claim of right” and without the consent of the owner. The person seeking title by adverse possession must assert a legal right to the property in one of three ways:
- By actually occupying the land,
- Through a “good-faith” mistake (for example, a neighbor’s mistaken belief about the location of a property line), or
- By knowingly trespassing on property.
- Actual—A claim for adverse possession cannot be substantiated without physical presence on the premises. Simple actions such as mowing the lawn or planting a garden suffice as proof of possession. Furthermore, building any type of structure, such as a fence or shed, also constitutes actual possession.
- Open and notorious—To claim property through adverse possession, the use or possession of the land must be obvious. Resorting to subterfuge or deceitful tactics to mask the use of a property render a squatter ineligible to claim ownership by adverse possession.
- Exclusive and continuous for a specified period—For a valid claim of adverse possession, the use of property must be exclusive and not shared with the landowner or any other third party during the stipulated period. Furthermore, the property must be used without interruption for the required time.
How Long Must the Squatter Possess the Property to Claim Adverse Possession?
Durations for claiming adverse possession vary from state to state. For example, in California, a person may succeed in a claim of adverse possession after only 5 years. Alabama mandates a 20-year period to qualify for adverse possession. Be sure to check the law that applies for the state where the property is located.
What Can You Do to Protect Your Property from Adverse Possession?
If you own property and it’s not possible for you to use the property or make improvements on it yourself, the most important thing you can do is pay attention to and monitor the property. Clearly demarcate the property, and immediately notify any intruder or squatter of your ownership to negate a possible claim of adverse possession. The notice should be in writing for subsequent use as evidence in case of any claim.
Adverse possession can result in loss of title to property and ownership passing to a squatter. A person seeking title by adverse possession must prove in court that the use was hostile, actual, open and notorious, and continuous for a specified duration (as defined by the law of the state where the property is located). Such a claim can be avoided by monitoring your property and notifying trespassers of your ownership.