A recent Florida real estate case has the media aflutter with discussion of a long-standing but relatively unknown legal doctrine called adverse possession. Unknown, that is, until some bold scamp waltzes into an abandoned home and claims it as his own, citing adverse possession. In the Florida case, the claimant did some pretty bold waltzing. He entered a posh Boca Raton neighborhood and staked claim to a $2.5 million mansion. Rightfully, the neighborhood was outraged, disbelieving that the law would actually permit such behavior.
So, does the law permit such behavior? Like many legal questions, the answer is both “yes” and “no.”
The doctrine of adverse possession does allow individuals to legally claim property through possession without actually having to purchase it. However, the requirements of adverse possession are fairly strict and typically require a person to possess the land undisturbed for many years, sometimes decades. While the exact requirements vary depending on where you live, generally, a claimant must establish that his/her possession of the property was 1) actual 2) open and notorious 3) exclusive 4) hostile and 5) continuous for the statutory period.
While adverse possession claims can be difficult to win, unfounded claims can still create massive headaches and legal issues for unsuspecting property-owners. Last summer, JD Supra contributor Lawyers.com described one such nightmare scenario in a case where squatters used a number of legal maneuvers to prevent ejection from a Colorado home, including an affidavit of adverse possession and declaring bankruptcy to delay eviction proceedings.
From that article, here’s a suggestion for homeowners on how to deal with these situations:
“If your house is taken over by squatters, make sure you act sooner rather than later. The first step is, you call the police. Then, if whoever is in your house presents legal documents and the police say they can’t do anything about this, you really need to engage an attorney immediately. If [squatters] are clever enough, they may be able to delay eviction by a month, six weeks, something like that. The sooner you deal with the problem the more likely you are to get the attention of the courts and more likely to get the courts to move as quickly as they can.”
With all of these possible problems, it begs the question: why does the doctrine exist in the first place? Florida-based firm Schecter Law explains the reasoning:
“The doctrine exists to cure possible defects in title that may arise by putting a limitation on possible litigation over ownership and possession. Without adverse possession, a landowner’s title may be challenged by and long-lost heirs of any owner, possessor, or lien holder with a legal claim to the property. Furthermore, the doctrine also encourages the use and maintenance of real property by penalizing landowners who are not actively engaged in the upkeep of their property.”
Adverse Possession really is the “snooze, you lose” of the property system. If you sleep on your rights, you just may wake up with someone else owning your bed.
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