Boundary disputes between neighbors and their properties are nothing new, and are probably just about as old as the concept of privately-owned real estate.
Disputes between adjoining property owners regarding the location of their common property line can arise from a multitude of different factual situations. The property descriptions contained in some ancient deeds written by a quill pen and ink might have been ambiguous or contained inconsistent information. Or maybe a survey conducted many years later reveals that one neighbor’s fence (or deck, shed, or other structure) encroaches on the other neighbor’s property.
However they begin, these boundary line disputes can escalate quickly and require contacting a real estate attorney. Both neighbors may have some seemingly legitimate claim to title of the disputed area, and emotions often run high when it comes to the ownership of land that has been in the family for generations or for which significant sums of hard-earned money have been paid.
Sometimes all it takes is a conversation and/or a little research and the dispute resolves itself. Other times resolution will not be possible until you engage a real estate attorney and a court issues an order in an action to quiet title or ejectment.
Depending on the specific factual scenario, different legal principles may come into play, including adverse possession and the consentable line doctrine. Adverse possession and consentable line claims can allow a person who does not have legal title to a piece of land to acquire title through occupation of the land for a period of time. The requirements for claims made under these principles differ from state to state, and each case will require the analysis of a number of specific facts about the current and historical use of the property in dispute.
In Pennsylvania, a claim for adverse possession requires a claimant to show that it has occupied the land of another for a period of 21 years (or 10 years in certain, specific circumstances) in a manner that is:
- Notorious; and
These requirements are legal terms of art with specific legal definitions, and will require an in-depth understanding of the law and application of the facts by a real estate attorney. But importantly, title to the property can transfer to a person who continuously occupies and uses a portion of land in a manner hostile to the ownership of the title owner, and who has met all other requirements, for the required time period.
The Consentable Line Doctrine
The consentable line doctrine can be applied to cases where the existence of a boundary line is established by either recognition and acquiescence or dispute and compromise. It also requires a period of at least 21 years, but has much less stringent requirements than adverse possession. A claim based on acquiescence may only require that:
- that each party has claimed the land on their side of the line as their own, and
- that they have occupied the land on their side of the line for a continuous period of 21 years.
There are also less stringent requirements regarding the ability to satisfy the requirement of continuous occupation for at least 21 years by adding years that the property was used or occupied by prior owners, called “tacking”. In consentable line doctrine cases, the claimant does not need for the property for which they are asserting a claim to have been included in the property description of the deed by which they obtained title to their property, but need only show that the prior owner claimed the property and that the property is contiguous to the property they received by deed.
Whether you may be interested in assessing your own claim based on adverse possession or the consentable line doctrine, or need to evaluate the strength of a potential claim against you, it is vitally important to fully understand the law and assess the facts. It’s best to consult with a real estate attorney avoid issues.
What To Do If You Have a Boundary Dispute?
In many cases, neighbors will have good (or at least respectful) relationships and be able to work out some sort of private agreement between themselves. This is preferable where possible, since it will save significant amounts of time and money and help maintain the peace in the neighborhood.
Even in these cases, it may make sense to consult a real estate attorney for assistance and counsel in drafting or reviewing any agreement, as legal rights and real estate interests can often be complex and nuanced. It is important that the agreement protects you and your rights and interests now and in the future.
However, as stated above there are many cases in which the value of the property interest in dispute is significant enough or the neighbors involved are not able to come to an agreement on their own and litigation ensues.