My sister and her husband bought land on the outskirts of Flagstaff, where it was so deserted that the first street—dirt road, really—was named after my sister.

When someone purchased the five acres beside theirs, and parked some cars over on my sister and her husband’s property, it seemed kind of okay, being as there was so much room all over.

One day, they looked out their back door and saw the folks who belonged to the cars constructing a fence alongside those cars—on my sister and her husband’s side. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Sister, who moseyed out there to talk to them: “What are you doing?” 

Neighbor: “We’re building a fence.” Duh.

Sister: “But this is our side of the property line.” That could be seen, from corner posts at both ends of the line.

Neighbor: “Not any more. We’ve been using it for enough years that we’re going to claim it.” After a moment, the neighbor added: “Look up adverse possession.”

So they did. Three lawyers later, it finally became clear to my sister and her husband that there actually was, hard as it was to accept, nothing that could be done about it.

Let’s examine adverse possession, a term which actually originated in England, and was first applied here in the USA in the form of “squatter’s rights.” Adverse possession is sometimes still called squatter’s rights, and has close ties to the phrase “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Possession carries with it legal backing for the possessor, even when common sense would seem to indicate otherwise. The principle here centers around the idea that, if no one is using the property, the first person to occupy it and use it over time owns it. Squatter’s rights have their roots in homesteading, a process which differs because in that circumstance, no individual owned the occupied property. A great deal of the USA was claimed that way; hence, a great deal of our law was formulated based on that principle.

There are some ways to avoid becoming trapped in this dilemma. For example, my sister and her husband could have at some point earlier on in the neighbor’s adverse possession of a strip of their land said to them: “It’s okay for you to use our land.” This in most states would have cancelled out any possibility of a future adverse possession claim. That they did not, well, there you have the focus of the entire affair. They could have told the neighbors that they were trespassing. That also would have negated the entire future basis of any adverse claim. All of these forms of notification have to be executed, however, within a specific time frame, which varies from state to state.

For example, in rural areas, a person who moves in and occupies several acres may well believe he owns it, perhaps having purchased it from some scoundrel who also sells shares in the Brooklyn Bridge. The actual owner of this land, who may be absent for the years while this is happening, and totally oblivious to what is going on, is going to be unhappy, should the possessor know about the whole adverse possession thing.

Another example is of a garage that is found to be on the wrong side of a fresh survey line, a garage that may have been placed there two or three owners back with mutual permission. Chances are, that garage is going to remain there. The basis for this is the possession of that land for a necessary length of time, under the heading of adverse possession. Use it long enough, while the actual owner is aware of it and says nothing—it’s yours.

So. Make certain your fences are where you want them, and that your neighbor’s property is where you want it—on his or her land. What I know about this I got from the InterNet, and may or may not be accurate. Don’t hesitate to consult a lawyer.