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What are the adverse possession rules in California?

On Behalf of | Jun 3, 2024 | Real Estate Litigation

Adverse possession traces its roots back to ancient legal systems where a medieval farmer tills the soil, plants crops and builds a modest cottage on a piece of land. Over time, the farmer’s descendants continue to work the land, generation after generation. Eventually, the land becomes synonymous with their identity. It’s not just a plot; it’s their legacy.

Fast-forward to modern times, and the concept remains relevant. A legal doctrine that allows a person to claim land ownership under certain conditions, adverse possession allows someone who occupies another’s land openly, notoriously, and continuously to eventually claim legal ownership. In California, as in many other jurisdictions, the rules for adverse possession require the claimant to meet specific criteria before they can gain legal title to the property.

Most people acquire property by purchasing it or inheriting it. However, some people aren’t in a position to acquire property that way. They might instead decide to lay claim to a vacant piece of land or even a house that’s sitting unoccupied. 

If someone occupying or using a piece of real estate does so long enough without the owner fighting back, the owner could potentially lose the property to the person living there without their permission. 

Adverse possession is the legal process by which a squatter or non-owner assumes legal ownership of a piece of property that previously belonged to someone else. How does adverse possession work in California?

Five requirements for adverse possession

In California, the trespasser must successfully meet five conditions for adverse possession:

  1. Continuous possession: The trespasser must stake their claim and occupy the land without interruption for at least five years. However, that time frame increases to 20 years if the owner has a medical disability. The trespasser must physically use the property, whether performing improvements, living on it or cultivating it.
  2. Actual, open, and notorious possession: Rather than secretly occupying the land, the trespasser must be conspicuous, visible, unmistakable or impossible to ignore. It should be overt enough for the true owner to justifiably be concerned that someone occupies their property.
  3. Exclusive possession: The possession must be exclusive, meaning the claimant cannot share possession with strangers.
  4. Hostile claim: This doesn’t mean aggression or violence; hostility simply means the trespasser occupies the land without the valid owner’s permission.
  5. Pay property taxes: Rather than squatting, the occupier pays property taxes on the land.

The claim of right

The “claim of right” essentially eliminates the need for the adverse possessor to show any specific intent regarding the property’s ownership. Instead, it focuses on the nature of the possession itself, which must be adverse to the true owner’s interests. If the occupier treats the land as their own for five years, under the conditions required by law, they may be able to perfect their title to the land through adverse possession, effectively converting their claim of right into actual ownership.

The person claiming the property must live there openly for years

For a squatter or non-owner occupant to establish an adverse possession claim to a property, they will need to openly take possession of the property and start using it. Only after five years of occupation is a claim of adverse possession possible. In fact, the person occupying the land has to not only live there but also pay taxes on the property. 

Once that occupying individual has met the obligation to stay at the property and pay taxes on it for five years, they can potentially go to court to seek ownership of the property. However, if the owner of record has a medical disability, that time frame increases to a full twenty years. 

Fighting adverse possession

Property owners can protect themselves against adverse possession claims through frequent inspections and the timely eviction of any occupants there without permission. Learning more about real estate laws in California can help you protect your investment in your property.

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