What is Adverse Possession?

Adverse possession is a method, rooted in common law, of obtaining title to land through use. The common law rules for adverse possession have been codified under both federal and state statutes. A typical statute allows a person to obtain title to land from the actual owner simply by using the land. The use must be open for all to see. An example of openly using land for the purposes of adverse possession would be if your neighbor built a fence on your land with the intention of taking the property, paid your property taxes, and though you knew about it you did nothing. If this continued for a period of time set by state law, your neighbor may be able to claim this property as his/her own. The theory is that by not disputing your neighbor’s use of your property through a lawsuit, you, as the actual owner have abandoned your rights to the property. There are several elements needed for adverse possession to result in clean title:

The length of time required for adverse possession varies - it could be as short as a few years or could run for twenty years or more. Typically public entities must establish a longer period of possession than individuals. Some states have adopted a rule that requires the adverse possessor to pay taxes each year on the land.

  • The possession must be open for all to see. 
  • The possession must be exclusive to him or her (e.g., the fence in the above example, a driveway, road, etc.) 
  • The possession must be hostile to the actual owner of the land. 

Gaining title to land through adverse possession requires strict compliance with the law, and can have dramatic impact upon land ownership rights.

An encroachment could result in title to your property being transferred to an adverse possessor. Under these circumstances, you might have to bring a lawsuit for trespass in order to prevent your neighbor from obtaining title to your land through adverse possession.

If you own land, do not "sleep on your rights." You could lose ownership of land that is rightfully yours.