Adverse possession is a legal doctrine that dates back centuries – to before the founding of the United States of America – and that continues to present a risk for property owners in Washington to this day. Under the law of adverse possession, if you own property in Washington, you can lose your property if someone else finds a way to use it without your consent for a long enough period of time.
If you think this sounds unfair, you are not alone. If you are thinking that property owners can simply have trespassers removed in order to avoid having their property adversely possessed, you are right. But, there are various circumstances under which adverse possession can – and does – occur; and, as a property owner in Washington, it is important to make sure that it does not happen to you.
How Can You Tell If Someone Is Attempting to Take Adverse Possession of Your Property?
There are various requirements to establish adverse possession in Washington. One of these requirements is that the person claiming adverse possession must make “actual” use of the property in question. As a result, one of the first signs of an attempt to take title through adverse possession is simply that there is someone else on your property without your consent.
“Actual” use of the property for purposes of establishing adverse possession means that the trespasser (that is what he or she is until adverse possession occurs) is physically present on the property. This could mean that the trespasser is physically present and living on the property, or it could mean that the trespasser has constructed a fence, cabin, or other structure within the property lines. For example, some cases of adverse possession involve a neighbor building a boundary fence on the wrong side of the boundary line. Or, if you own property in the mountains and someone builds a hunting cabin deep in the woods on your land, this can constitute “actual” use even if the trespasser does not live in the cabin full-time.
Another requirement for establishing adverse possession is that the trespasser’s use of the property in question must be “open and notorious.” Basically, if a trespasser acts as though he or she is trespassing and attempts to conceal his or her use of the property, this will not give rise to a claim of adverse possession under Washington law. In order to start the clock running for an adverse possession claim, the trespasser’s use of the property must be readily apparent such that the property owner could easily discover the use with reasonable diligence.
Use of Property Must Be “Hostile” in Order to Establish a Claim for Adverse Possession
Another key element of an adverse possession claim is that the trespasser’s use must be “hostile.” If you give someone your consent to use your property, he or she is not a trespasser, and his or her use of your property is not “hostile.” Thus, if you rent your property to someone or let someone use your land for hunting or recreational purposes, that person will not be able to establish a claim for adverse possession.
On the flip side, if you do not give someone consent to be on your property, and if you let this be known by calling the police, taking legal action, or instructing him or her to leave, this can prevent adverse possession as well. This is based on the requirement for the trespasser’s use of the property to be “uninterrupted.” Even if the trespasser returns, the interruption in possession will re-start the 10-year clock for making a claim of adverse possession.
In order to ensure that you restart the clock (if not prevent the trespasser from coming back entirely), it is important to document your efforts to interrupt the trespasser’s use of the land. While a verbal instruction to leave may be technically sufficient, you do not want to end up in a he-said-she-said battle in Washington state court. You can file a report with the police or hire a lawyer to deal with the situation on your behalf; and, in addition to providing documentation, this will also reduce the likelihood of the trespasser returning.
If you interrupt the trespasser’s possession of your land and he or she does return, then this may be a sign that he or she is attempting to take adverse possession. Ten years is still a very long time, and constantly dealing with a trespasser can be inordinately frustrating, but it will be important for you to be diligent in order to protect your property rights.
What Should You Do If Someone Is Attempting to Take Adverse Possession of Your Property in Washington?
If you identify an attempt (or possible attempt) to take adverse possession of your property in Washington, what should you do? We recommend that you not try to deal with the situation on your own. Not only may this be ineffective for purposes of proving “interruption” of the trespasser’s use of your land as discussed above, but these interactions can become hostile in some cases – and you do not want to put yourself in a dangerous situation.
Depending on the circumstances, you can call the police and report a trespasser on your property, or you can hire a lawyer to deal with the situation on your behalf. For example, if a neighbor has built a fence on your property, a lawyer will be able to pull the property records, prove your property rights, and seek legal redress in court if necessary. The main thing is that you do not want to ignore the situation or put off dealing with it for any longer than necessary. Instead, take action, protect your property, and move on with your life.
Speak with a Trusted Local Lawyer at Bolan Law Group.
Are you dealing with a boundary dispute or a trespasser on your property in Washington? If so, our attorneys can protect your property rights and make sure you do not face a claim of adverse possession. To discuss your situation in confidence, call us directly, or request a consultation online today.