Possession in Washington
April 14, 2022
You own a couple of acres of unfenced property and mostly confine yourself to the private residence fronting the access road. A neighbor behind you builds a shed that sits on your property, but since you rarely go to the rear of your property, you don’t notice the encroachment by the trespasser or you just shrug it off.
Be careful: In ten years, the land where the shed sits can then become the trespasser’s legal property under the principle of adverse possession.
You don’t have to own acreage for a neighbor to lay claim to your property through adverse possession. If you own a home in a suburban block and a next-door neighbor builds a fence that juts into your property, your neighbor can also lay claim to that property in ten years. The same applies if it’s pavement leading to a neighbor’s garage that cuts across your boundary line.
If you want to keep your property to yourself, there are steps you can take, but you must take them before ten years have passed. Similarly, if you are a trespasser, you have legal options to claim ownership of the land after ten years through adverse possession.
For all your boundary and other real estate disputes in or around Tacoma, Washington, contact Curiale Hostnik PLLC. Our real estate attorneys stand ready to help you fend off an adverse possession or to press your claim through adverse possession of a neighbor’s property.
Adverse Possession in Washington State
The examples above underscore how a property owner must exercise due diligence in protecting his or her property. In addition to these examples, common intrusions include continuous use of a private road or driveway and agricultural development of an unused parcel of land.
Adverse possession is a legal standard that rewards those who find a productive use for land and punishes those who “sleep on their rights.”
The Washington Law Review explains that adverse possession “rests on considerations of public policy: that title to land should not long be in doubt, that society will benefit from someone's making use of land the owner leaves idle, and that third persons who come to regard the occupant as owner may be protected.”
In Washington, five elements must exist for establishing adverse possession of someone else’s property. A trespasser’s possession must be:
Hostile: Done against the right of the lawful owner and without permission
Actual: Exercising control over the property
Exclusive: Using it as one’s own without sharing it with others
Open and Notorious: Not hiding the occupancy and using it as a real owner would
Continuous and Uninterrupted: Occupying and using it for ten years
Importantly, the burden of proof for an adverse possession case lies with the trespasser.
Preventing Adverse Possession Claims
You can ward off adverse possession in the first place, depending on your property, by posting no trespassing signs, though this may not help if a trespasser meets the above five standards anyway.
In a more proactive way, you can inform the trespasser that they are on your property. You can then give them written permission and have them sign it. This would prevent an adverse possession claim. You could also agree to rent it to them, preventing adverse possession.
Role of the Quiet Title
If there is uncertainty surrounding the ownership of a part of your property, you can use a legal action called quiet title. In a quiet title action, you ask a Superior Court judge to rule on who actually owns the land the trespasser has occupied. This will clear up the title to the property, so when you go to sell, you won’t face reluctant buyers who want to know why there’s a shed on the rear of your property or a fence that makes a weird turn in your backyard.
How Curiale Hostnik PLLC Can Help
If parts of your property are being used without your permission, you need to take action to stop the trespassing before adverse possession can take hold. On the flip side, if you’re trespassing on another’s property and you meet the above five elements of adverse possession, you can seek title to the land.
Whichever category you find yourself in, contact the real estate attorneys at Curiale Hostnik PLLC. Adverse possession cases can present several legal challenges for both the property owner and the trespasser, and you will need the help of experienced and knowledgeable legal counsel. That’s where we come in.
Curiale Hostnik PLLC serves clients in and around Tacoma, Washington, and in cities throughout Pierce County, including Puyallup, Gig Harbor, University Place, and Lakewood.