Adverse possession, also known as “squatters rights,” is a legal concept where an individual can claim legal title to a piece of real estate that they do not own, as long as they openly inhabit that real estate for a specific period of time. Most of the intention behind these laws is to discourage landowners from “sleeping on their rights” and to settle the land and boundary disputes between neighbors. The burden of proof is on the squatter to show that they have met all the requirements needed to establish adverse possession.
Requirements for Adverse Possession
The State of Washington outlines requirements that must be met for an individual to be granted title to a piece of land by adverse possession.
The land possession must be open and actual. The term “actual” here means that the squatter must actually be utilizing the land for personal reasons. The term “open” means that the land must be openly possessed in a manner that is apparent to anyone. In other words, the possession of the land cannot be hidden or covert. For example, if the squatter lives on and openly cares for the property and can be seen mowing the grass, planting trees, or otherwise taking care of the land, that would make the possession open and actual.
The land possession must be exclusive. The land can only be occupied by the individual squatter. It cannot be jointly shared with the true owner or the public.
The land possession must be hostile. This means that the squatter does not have the permission of the true landowner to occupy the land. If permission is granted by the landowner, then adverse possession does not apply because the squatter is merely a guest. Do not mistake this requirement to mean that the squatter must have hostile intent toward the landowner or plan to deprive the landowner of the property. Washington State acknowledges that trespassers may unknowingly occupy a piece of property that is not theirs while honestly believing that the property rightfully belongs to them. In these cases, the intention is not malicious, but the possession of the property is still adverse to the interests of the landowner.
The land possession must be for the required period of time. In the State of Washington, a squatter must occupy a piece of land for a period of 10 years before they can file for adverse possession. However, if the squatter has paid the property taxes on the land for at least 7 years, the trespasser may then file for adverse possession.
Another exception to the statutory 10-year period is when the property is held under what is known as “color of title” as per Washington’s Revenue Code § 7.28.050. Color of title essentially means that a document purporting to claim ownership of a property is legally on file, but the document is not valid. If no one challenges this document for a period of seven years, the document becomes legal under Washington State law.
The land possession must be uninterrupted. The statutory period of the land possession must be for an uninterrupted period of time. If the occupant shares the land with someone or abandons the land for a period of time, the clock for the statutory period restarts once the occupant reclaims the land or holds the land exclusively.
When Adverse Possession Is Not a Possibility
There are some exceptions to Washington’s adverse possession rule. First, land that is owned by the government cannot be claimed through adverse possession. In addition, if the true owner of the land:
- has died,
- is no longer in Washington state,
- is in prison, or
- is disabled,
then the statutory clock does not begin to tick until a new rightful owner is established or the true owner returns.
A common reason that people file for adverse possession of land is when there is doubt or confusion surrounding property boundaries. For example, two separate cattle ranches exist side by side with no clear boundaries marked between them. If Rancher A places a fence or a corral on Rancher B’s property and Rancher B does not object for 10 years, then Rancher A has the right to file for adverse possession to get title to that piece of property. The construction of the fence or corral by Rancher A on Rancher B’s property does not have to be with the intent to deprive Rancher B of the land and can be unintentional. But as long as it is done in the open, gives Rancher A exclusive access to that property, is not done with the consent of Rancher B, and is for an uninterrupted period of 10 years, then Rancher A may file for adverse possession.
Preparing to File Adverse Possession
When you wish to gain adverse possession of the property, there are some steps you can take to make the process go more smoothly. First, go over the requirements listed above and gather any documentation or other evidence that supports each requirement. For instance, if you are going to claim adverse possession of the property using one of the exceptions to the statutory 10-year timeframe, you will need proof that you’ve met the requirement. If you paid property taxes on the land for the past 7 years, go through your records and gather all of the documentation supporting that claim.
Once you have gathered proof, it is best to seek the assistance of an experienced real estate legal team. Your attorney can review your documents and your claim to make sure you have met all the criteria. They can then file a quiet title action and assist you in obtaining legal title to the property. If the true landowner disputes the claim, then you will need an attorney well-versed in property law to properly argue the merits of your case and work towards a successful outcome.
Speak with a Trusted Real Estate Legal Team at Bolan Law Group.
If you have questions about adverse possession or want to file a claim, our knowledgeable attorneys at Bolan Law Group can answer your questions and help you accomplish your goals. If you are a landowner who is in a dispute over a claim of adverse possession against property that you rightfully own, we can fight to protect your title to the property. To schedule a confidential consultation, we encourage you to call our office directly or contact us through our online form today.