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Adverse possession and why you must address boundary disputes

Having a casual understanding of where your property begins and ends is relatively normal. It is common for property owners to use natural landmarks as the way to recall boundaries for their property. They may not have had a survey done since they purchased the property. In the case of inherited family land, this could mean generations have passed.

Unfortunately, the tactic of using landmarks for boundary markers is prone to errors, and mistakes in human memory can lead to long-standing neighborly conflicts. Perhaps one neighbor believes the boundary falls just north of a particular tree, while the other neighbor believes it falls on the south side, which means the tree is on his property.

Such disputes are often minor issues if they occur at the far back of your parcel. However, if the land in question involves area that you or your neighbors want to plant for crops, or an area you intend to improve or develop, the dispute could quickly become a serious issue.

Don't let your neighbor assume possession of your property

Perhaps your neighbor claims that a portion of your land that abuts theirs actually belongs to them and not you. Maybe there is simply a disagreement about where the property line exists. You could choose to overlook disputes on this issue, hoping to preserve the peace. Unfortunately, that approach could leave you legally vulnerable in the future.

If your neighbor begins to plant on the land or otherwise utilize it, they could eventually claim adverse possession of the property. Similarly, if your neighbor built the fence that encroaches on your property, you could eventually find that the fence becomes the new boundary marker. Once your neighbor starts using or accessing your land, you will need to legally assert your ownership or potentially risk losing the land.

How long does it take for someone to make an adverse possession claim?

When someone begins using or accessing property that doesn't belong to them, that is called adverse possession. Many times, individuals will begin using land as their own without the consent of the owner. Under Virginia law, after 15 years, that person may have grounds to claim the property as their own. The courts will have to carefully review any claims related to adverse possession.

It is your obligation as the owner of the property to serve the individual with notice to cease and desist if they utilize or encroach on property you own. Failing to stand up for your rights as a property owner won't make you a forgiving neighbor. It could make you into someone who winds up losing some of their land to an unscrupulous neighbor. Knowing your boundaries and enforcing them is your best option as a landowner in Virginia.

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