You have probably heard the expression “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” While not literally true, New York law does recognize the principle of adverse possession, that is the acquisition of title to real property after a period of continuous occupation and use. Also known historically as “squatter's rights,” adverse possession allows someone to claim ownership of land even if a deed or other legal title names another owner.
Adverse possession often arises when an owner abandons a piece of property and another person occupies it without first acquiring formal title. Yet adverse possession is not simply a matter of declaring ownership. You cannot, for instance, claim your neighbor's pool under adverse possession simply because you used it while she was away on vacation. To establish adverse possession in New York, a claimant must prove by “clear and convincing evidence” he or she has been in “actual possession” of the property in question for at least 10 years continuously. The claimant must also openly acknowledge he or she is trespassing on property legally owned by another; there is no such thing as a secret adverse possession.
Bergmann v. Spallane
Adverse possession claims often involve boundary disputes between neighboring property owners. Here is a recent example from a case heard by the Appellate Division, Third Department. The plaintiffs and defendants have been neighbors in Rensselaer County since the 1970s. The plaintiffs own a lakeside home accessible only by a driveway on the defendants' property. There is a small triangular piece of land at the end of this driveway. When the plaintiffs purchased their property, they believed this triangular piece belonged to them, and accordingly maintained it as part of their front yard over the past four decades. But in 2009, the defendants conducted a property survey, which showed the triangular piece actually belonged to them.
The plaintiffs then filed suit for possession of the disputed land under adverse possession. Rensselaer County Supreme Court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs. The Third Department reversed that decision, however, returning the case for trial.
In its opinion, the Third Department said the plaintiffs had not yet established the “element of hostility,” which is a necessary element of an adverse possession claim. Basically, if a property owner knowingly allows you to use his or her property, even for an extended period of time, you cannot claim ownership through adverse possession. You must be acting in a manner hostile to the owner's interests, i.e. trespassing.
Here, the defendants said they knew all along the disputed triangular piece belonged to them, but they gave the plaintiffs permission to use it. The plaintiffs continue to dispute this, maintaining they believed the land was theirs outright before 2009. In any case, the Third Department said, this represented a factual dispute for the Supreme Court to resolve at trial.
Adverse possession is just one type of complicated legal issue that may arise for property owners. If you are involved in any sort of dispute with your neighbors over property lines and need advice from an experienced New York real estate attorney, contact our offices today.