In the poem Mending Wall, the poet Robert Frost describes a man fixing a stone fence between his and his neighbor’s fields and questioning the actual need for such a structure. His wise neighbor instead counsels him twice that “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The takeaway from the poem is that clearly defined boundaries between adjacent properties promote the peaceful coexistence of the owners of those properties. Anyone who has ever gotten into an argument with a neighbor over property boundaries can likely attest to same.
Know your boundaries
At some point, the property you purchased was surveyed by a professional to clearly delineate the property lines. You may have ordered the survey yourself but it is also likely that you relied upon a survey that was already done in the past.
There are, however, potential problems with using decades-old surveys to establish modern boundaries. For instance, many older property surveys relied on geographic attributes that may no longer be valid, e.g., “20 feet from the third elm tree” long after the elm had been felled by lightning.
If your property boundaries rely on much older descriptions, it’s a good idea to get an updated survey done now.
Reaching mutual accord on boundary disputes
If you and your neighbor are involved in a controversy over the property lines, the two of you can reach an agreement over the matter and set a certain physical marker, e.g., a fence, as the boundary between the two properties. Both of you will then need to sign off on a quitclaim deed that grants you each ownership of the lands on either side of the respective divider.
Quiet title lawsuits can arise
Unfortunately, not all boundary disputes are satisfactorily resolved by updating a survey or via mutual agreement. In some cases, property owners have to file quiet title lawsuits. Then, a judge will establish the property’s boundary lines.
What about adverse possession?
Here is where a dispute can get really tricky. The doctrine of adverse possession states that when property in dispute was used by people who are not the legal owners for a certain number of years, those people may now have a legal right to continue to use it.
For the doctrine to apply, said possession by non-owners has to have been “open, notorious, and under a claim of right.” Also, in some jurisdictions, the property taxes must have also been paid by the non-owners.