Property disputes between neighbors are common in California and other states. These most often arise when one neighbor attempts to build across the property line or when a neighbor realizes that the line is not where he or she thought it was.
Acting quickly to correct any misunderstanding will help you avoid losing that land through adverse possession, imposition of a prescriptive easement, or application of the doctrine of balancing the equities.
As FindLaw explains, adverse possession is an old legal doctrine to encourage land use in neglected areas. In the past, adverse possession encouraged squatters and settlers to make the land around them productive after others had left it behind. For example, if a property owner moves or falls ill and leaves the land vacant, adverse possession laws can encourage someone else to make use of the land.
Now, this doctrine more commonly applies to property line disputes between neighbors. Over time, allowing your neighbor to use your land without dispute or a contractual agreement could result in him or her being able to claim ownership of it.
While each state has its own laws about adverse possession, California requires that the party hoping to claim the land have used and paid taxes on the land for at least five years continually before he or she may pursue the claim. This means that he or she cannot leave the land for any significant amount of time during those five years. Proof of payment of taxes by the claimant is often the most difficult requirement to satisfy.
Also, the person using the land needs to have acquired and used it openly and not secretively. He or she may know that the land belongs to another, but it could also be a case of misunderstanding. This requirement ensures that the property owner has sufficient time within the five-year window to intervene if he or she still wants to retain ownership of the disputed land.
Prescriptive easement is a closely related legal principal. However, instead of dealing with ownership of the land of another, it deals with obtaining a right to use that land. For example, if one land owner has been using a driveway over the land of another land owner for an extended period time without the true owner’s permission, the claimant could not have an adverse possession claim because driving over someone’s land is not continuous occupancy. However, the pattern of use, if not challenged by the owner of the land being regularly traveled over, can ripen under a prescriptive easement theory into a right in favor of the other to continue doing so into the future.
Balancing of the Equities
Adverse possession and prescriptive easement are ancient legal doctrines. The courts have also developed in recent decades another approach to dealing with boundary, encroachment and land use disputes, known as “balancing of the equities.” In this approach, the court doesn’t examine whether an adverse possession or prescriptive easement has been established, but instead looks into what would be a fair resolution of the dispute. Using this approach, the court will examine what the burden is on the land owner whose land is being occupied or used if the court were to allow that to continue, compares that to the benefits to the other party in allowing them to continue the occupancy or use of the others land, and tries to reach a fair compromise. This is a very flexible approach, but can sometimes result in a surprising shift in each side’s property rights.
Whichever approach is used, the bottom line is that if a land owner allows his or her land to be continuously used or occupied by others, he or she may eventually lose important ownership rights. Accordingly, it is important to understand where your boundaries are and pay attention to whether others may be occupying or using a portion of your land.