What Is Adverse Possession?

Adverse Possession Explained in Less than 4 Minutes

A person looks over a neighbor's fence
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Adverse possession is a legal doctrine for when someone acquires the title of another person’s property or land. Rules vary by jurisdiction but generally, someone can claim adverse possession after they’ve taken up residence on or have continuous possession of a piece of property for a specified amount of time.

Learn more about what adverse possession is, the legal criteria for that classification, and how it could impact you as a property owner.

Definition and Examples of Adverse Possession

Adverse possession grants ownership of land to someone other than the owner if that person occupies it for longer than the statute of limitations for that jurisdiction. Put another way, it’s an odd law in which someone occupies property without permission (intentionally or not), then gains a legal right to that property after a set period of time and if other criteria are met.

  • Alternate name: Squatter’s Rights

How Does Adverse Possession Work?

Adverse possession is when a non-owner/trespasser/squatter occupies real property without permission. The owner must try to remove them during the statute of limitations period; otherwise, the person committing the possession could potentially take legal ownership.

For there to be an adverse possession, however, each of these criteria must be met:

  • Exclusive and continuous: The possessor has to have remained on the property continuously, without others occupying it as well.
  • Actual possession: The person must physically occupy the property, not just say they want control.
  • Hostile possession: The possessor, by occupying the property, is infringing on the original owner’s rights without permission.
  • Open and notorious possession: The possessor is not sneaking onto the property. They are openly living there in a way an owner would, and their occupation should be obvious to any outside observer.

Types of Adverse Possession

Adverse possession can happen a couple of different ways.

First, adverse possession could be awarded to someone who intentionally occupies property that doesn’t belong to them, such as a trespasser or a squatter, who stays for a long period of time. This may happen in the case of an absentee owner not checking on the property that someone has made their home. If enough time passes per the state’s law, the title may be granted to the trespasser.

The amount of time required to occupy a property before initiating adverse possession process varies by state and local law, typically taking several years.

Someone could qualify for adverse possession in as short as two years in Maricopa County, Arizona, although it’s more common to see longer periods, such as 10 years in New York.

In another common example of adverse possession, someone such as a neighbor encroaches on a rightful owner’s property. For instance, a neighbor may build a garage or put up a fence that crosses a property line. This sometimes is done unintentionally, but it could result in adverse possession if the encroachment occurred for long enough.

What It Means for Your Property

Adverse possession can create a legal headache for a property owner, but there are ways to avoid it. The best deterrent for unauthorized occupants is to keep regular tabs on a property, and make sure everything is locked and fenced-off properly.

In the case of a neighbor encroaching on your land, if the owner provides written permission for the neighbor to use the property, then they cannot be awarded the title to that land since it would not meet the “hostile” requirement of an adverse possession. However, be mindful that allowing a neighbor to build on and/or encroach on your land could cause difficulties if and when you try to sell.

Should you find yourself in a situation in which someone is on the verge of qualifying for adverse possession, hire an attorney to help you file a lawsuit to remove the party and/or reclaim the property.

Key Takeaways

  • Adverse possession is a legal term referring to when someone other than a rightful owner gains the legal right to a property after occupying it without permission.
  • To qualify as adverse possession, the possession must be actual, continuous, exclusive, hostile, and be done in an open and notorious way.
  • Every state has their own laws regarding the statute of limitations for when a property can become an adverse possession.
  • Owners can avoid adverse possession situations by closely monitoring their property and being mindful of property lines with neighbors.