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Property Line Disputes: When Fences Make Good Neighbors

Imagine: A big storm is headed your way. Outside of the normal grocery and generator prep work, storms remind homeowners of older trees they meant to have cut down, or that pesky limb that is bound to fall any day now. What's tricky is when that tree doesn’t belong to you. Technically, that tree belongs to your neighbor, but its limbs and leaves fall over the property line and into your yard.

Property lines, or boundary lines, outline your property. They are provided in your property deed and determine where your land ends and where your neighbor’s land begins. So how do you know whose responsibility those limbs are without a fence? And really, how do you know your fence is even in the right place?

Encroachment & Trespassing

Disputes over property lines often uncover questions about who can do what and where, and these questions can arise in a variety of ways. In the example above, a tree could fall from your neighbor’s property into yours or vice versa. This type of dispute is called encroachment.

“We see many property line disputes relating to encroachment,” says Whitehurst, Blackburn & Warren partner Joe Cargile. “For example, a real estate transaction arises, a land survey is completed, and the new land owner doesn't know the previously ‘agreed upon’ property line. Once a survey is conducted, the results often reveal there is a difference from what was believed to be the property line.”

Disputes involving property encroachment can occur over a relatively small amount of land. Even three yards difference can be upsetting and cause a vicious dispute.

Cargile explains, “Because there can be an emotional attachment to land, my best advice is if you're putting up a new fence or buying a piece of land, always hire a professional to conduct a survey.”

Unlike encroachment, trespassing is another property issue that occurs when you knowingly occupy land that isn’t yours. “No Trespassing” signs are common along rural roads and working land. These signs are used to inform citizens that a boundary exists between public and private property.

Adverse Possession

Occasionally, property disputes favor the “trespasser.”

The doctrine of adverse possession actually protects individuals who have been using property that is not their own. If a landowner is not present—or has not noticed their land being openly used by another—then the person who is making productive use of the land may be able to establish a legal right to own it. This doctrine has common law roots that embody a philosophy that owners of land should be good stewards of their property.

“Adverse possession allows a non-owner to legally claim possession of a piece of land if they have been using it for more than seven years within a city’s limits, or more than 20 years in the county,” Cargile explains. “The burden of proof is on the party that has taken the property. It is their duty to prove they have been using the land for the required amount of time and that the official landowner was not using it.”

Common examples of use by a non-property owner are farming and gardening.

Legal Guidance

Land disputes can be heated regardless of the amount of property in question.

“We see property line questions quite often. My recommendation to avoid disputes after you purchase a piece of land is this—If the property is not already fenced, have a survey drawn,” Cargile advises. “The lines may not be where you think they are. At minimum, have a professional find the corners of the property in question."

The legal team at Whitehurst, Blackburn & Warren is here to advise you. Call us today at 229-226-2161 for your free consultation.

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