In real estate law, adverse possession is a means of acquiring title to another's real property without compensation.
Adverse possession requires the actual, visible, hostile, notorious, exclusive, and continuous possession of the property, and some jurisdictions further require the possession to be made under a claim of title. In simple terms, this means that those attempting to claim the property are occupying it exclusively (keeping out others) and openly as if it were their own. Some jurisdictions permit accidental adverse possession as might occur with a surveying error. Generally, the openly hostile possession must be continuous (although not necessarily constant) without challenge or permission from the lawful owner, for a fixed statutory period in order to acquire title. Where the property is of a type ordinarily only occupied during certain times (such as a summer cottage), the adverse possessor may only need to be in exclusive, open, hostile possession during those successive useful periods.
This is sometime called "squatters' rights". If the squatter abandons the property for a period, or if the rightful owner effectively removes the squatter's access even temporarily during the statutory time period, the "clock" usually begins running again. However, one squatter may pass along continuous possession to another squatter, known as "tacking", until the adverse possession period is complete. A lawful owner may also restart the "clock" by giving temporary permission for the occupation of the property, thus defeating the necessary "continuous and hostile" element. Evidence that a "squatter" paid rent to the owner would defeat adverse possession for that period.
Once the statute of limitations has expired for evicting the trespassers, and assuming the legal owner has done nothing to halt the process, the successful adverse possessors acquire equitable title to the land, to the extent it was actually possessed (e.g., just the part they occupied, not necessarily everything on the legal owner's deed). At that point they no longer need to continuously, exclusively or openly occupy any part of the land because they now own it. However, to become the legal owners of record (helpful to have a deed for future transactions), they may bring an action in land court to "quiet title" of record in their names on some or all of the former owner's property.
Adverse possession does not typically work against property owned by a government agency. It also fails to give any rights if the land is registered under a Torrens title registration system.
A similar concept called adverse prescription creates an easement in which others may acquire the right to trespass on land by continuously using it without permission. This must also be done openly but need not be exclusive, and must outlast the same required statutory eviction period. It is common practice in cities such as New York, where builders often leave sidewalk space or plazas in front of their buildings to meet zoning requirements, to close public areas they own periodically in order to prevent the creation of a permanent easement and compromise their exclusive property rights.
Furthermore, if someone trespasses upon an easement, meeting all the requirements for adverse prescription (e.g., locking the gates to a commonly used area, and nobody does anything about it), they may adversely re-acquire exclusivity against the easement by prescription. This is another reason to quiet title after a successful adverse possession or adverse prescription; it clarifies the record of who should take action to preserve the adverse title or easement while evidence is still fresh.
For example, given a deeded easement to use someone else's driveway to reach a garage, if a fence or permanently locked gate prevents the use, and nothing is done to remove or circumvent the obstacle, and the statutory period expires, then the easement ceases to have any legal force, even though it remains in the deed.
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