Boundary Disputes Between Neighbors – The Basics

Boundary Disputes

Every year, I get calls from clients who need help resolving boundary disputes with their neighbors. One such dispute involved an adjacent neighbor who built a wall on the client’s property. Another involved a neighbor who built a barn partially over the client’s property line. And another involved a client who owned property on which a neighbor constructed storage sheds. In each of these disputes, the following legal principles were potentially applicable but getting the services of a Real Estate Lawyer is always recommended. Similarly, they can also help with the Work Permit Canada. Now coming back to it.

• Adverse possession – as unfair as it might initially appear, a trespasser can become the owner of property in some situations. Adverse possession requires that the trespasser take open and notorious possession of the property for five years, use it in a manner that is hostile to the owner (e.g., inconsistent with the owner’s ownership), and pay the taxes assessed on the property. If these requirements are met, the owner can lose all rights to the property claimed by the trespasser. In each of the disputes mentioned above, the neighbor did not pay my client’s property taxes. Accordingly, counsel for the neighbor did not seriously rely on the adverse possession argument.

• Prescriptive easement – more frequently, a trespasser will claim a prescriptive easement over the property used. If such an easement exists, the trespasser can continue using the property in a manner consistent with past practice, and the owner cannot block such use. The elements of a prescriptive easement are essentially the same as adverse possession (open and notorious possession that is hostile to the owner), but there is no property tax payment requirement. Accordingly, opposing counsel in the disputes referenced above claimed that their clients had prescriptive easements to continue using the encroached property. But, California courts have held that a trespasser cannot obtain an exclusive prescriptive easement that would effectively prevent the owner from using the property. Since that is exactly what a prescriptive easement would have done in my cases, opposing counsel placed little emphasis on that argument.

• Agreed Boundary Doctrine – Another argument that some trespassers assert is the Agreed Boundary Doctrine in which a boundary can be established by agreement between neighboring landowners where the true location of the boundary is uncertain or in doubt. However, this is a complicated legal principle that is subject to conflicting case law. Therefore, counsel for the neighbors in the disputes I handled did not even attempt to rely on this legal theory to support their clients’ claims.

• Good faith improvements – Recognizing that boundary disputes occur frequently in California, and that there was a need to specify adjacent landowners’ rights and remedies in such situations, the Legislature passed California Code of Civil Proc. §§ 871 et seq., which is known as the “Good Faith Improver” Act. Under this statute, a court has the authority to resolve boundary disputes caused by a person that makes an improvement on the land of another in good faith and because of a mistake. Under such circumstances, the court is authorized to make such adjustments to the property of either the good faith improver or the owner of the land “as is consistent with substantial justice to the parties under the circumstances of the particular case.” Id., §871.5. The statute provides that the remedy fashioned by the court should “protect the owner of the land upon which the improvement was constructed against any pecuniary loss but shall avoid, insofar as possible, enriching him unjustly at the expense of the good faith improver.” Id. As such, if a structure was built over a small portion of unused land as a result of good faith mistake, rather than requiring the structure to be torn down, the court might simply require the encroacher to pay damages to acquire the sliver of land at issue.

In the dispute referenced above involving the storage sheds, the sheds were sufficiently easy to move that the neighbor simply relocated them to his own property.  In the other two disputes involving structures built on my client’s property, the encroaching neighbors demonstrated sufficient good faith that the Good Faith Improver Act arguably applied. Further, in both cases, the land at issue was on remote portions of the clients’ property that had no practical impact on their use of the property or its value. As such, my clients agreed to resolve the boundary disputes by granting the neighbor’s lot line adjustments and selling them the property on which they built the structures. Had the neighbors not demonstrated good faith, or had the property at issue been valuable or critical to my clients’ enjoyment of their property, the disputes may not have been resolved so quickly or amicably.


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