Know the Law: Your Property in Peril: Adverse Possession

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Benjamin B. Folsom
Director, Litigation Department
Published: Union Leader
August 30, 2020
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Q:  Is there such a thing as “squatters’ rights”?

A:  Under the doctrine of adverse possession (sometimes colloquially referred to as “squatter’s rights”), you could lose your property, or at least a portion of it, and not even know it.  Title to real property may be acquired by someone who shows 20 years of adverse, continuous, exclusive, and uninterrupted use of the land.  The idea is that such use provides a property owner with sufficient notice that someone is making an adverse claim to the land and the opportunity to take corrective action.

Of course, in many cases it is obvious if someone tries to make an adverse claim on your property—that is, if someone who had no right or permission to be on your land was staking a claim to it.  If you saw someone building a structure, like a shed, on your property without your permission, you would know someone is making an adverse claim.  You can ask them to stop and remove their things. If they refuse, you would have to take other steps to prevent the adverse claim, such as contacting the appropriate authorities or seeking the help of an attorney to take legal action.

However, the subjective knowledge of the owner and the person making an adverse claim are not determinative of adverse possession.  Suppose you have a stone wall running along one side of your property.  You and your neighbor always believed that the stone wall constituted the boundary line.  You later find out that your property actually extends 10 feet beyond the stone wall.  You start thinking about potential landscaping projects for that land.

You may not get the chance.  Since you moved to this property 15 years ago, your neighbors have treated that 10-foot strip on “their” side of the wall as their own—they planted flowers along the wall, mowed the lawn and otherwise acted in a manner consistent with ownership of the land.  Moreover, the people who owned your property before you for 8 years had the same mistaken belief about the stone wall you did.  The neighbors (or their predecessors-in-interest) treated the 10-foot strip as their own during that period, as well.  It is possible that your neighbors have a valid claim for adverse possession over the 10-foot strip.

Claims for adverse possession are highly fact-dependent and can be legally complex.  If you find yourself involved in a situation where a claim of adverse possession arises, you should consult an attorney for guidance.

Know the Law is a bi-weekly column sponsored by McLane Middleton, Professional Association.  We invite your questions of business law.  Questions and ideas for future columns should be emailed to [email protected].  Please note – Know the Law provides general legal information, not legal advice.  We recommend that you consult a lawyer for guidance specific to your particular situation.