Did you know that if someone has been using your property for long enough without your permission, Maryland courts might actually give them legal ownership of your land? The ancient English common law doctrine of adverse possession, though rarely used, remains alive and well in the State of Maryland. If you own property, it’s a good idea to understand what could happen to it.
Understanding the Legal Doctrine
The doctrine of adverse possession dates back to an age when both literacy and land records were scarce commodities, so actual possession provided the strongest evidence of ownership. Under this doctrine, some who is technically trespassing by using land owned by another can gain legal title to that land in Maryland if:
- They are exercising actual control over the land
- Their use of the land is “hostile”
- Their use of the land is “open and notorious”
- They have used the land continuously for at least 20 years
- Their use of the land is “exclusive”
Someone’s use of land is considered “hostile” in Maryland if the owner has not given expression permission for that use—no actual hostility is required. Possession is considered exclusive if the trespasser uses the property for his own benefit and not for the benefit of the owner.
Use of property is treated as open and notorious if there is no attempt to hide that use, and the trespasser is using the property as an owner would. A general purpose behind the doctrine is to avoid the hardship that would occur when someone makes improvements on property and then has to give it up.
A Misplaced Fence Leads to Adverse Possession in St. Mary’s County
One recent example of the application of the doctrine of adverse possession in Maryland comes from a property dispute in Hollywood, Maryland in St. Mary’s County. In Edgecomb v. Mattingly, the Court of Special Appeals upheld the opinion of the Circuit Court in favor of adverse possession. Although the court’s opinion is officially “unreported” and cannot be cited as authority, the case offers insight into application of the doctrine in modern property law.
In that case, the prior owners of the Edgecomb property built a fence near the property line that left out approximately 1400 square feet of their property. The owners of the neighboring property, the Mattinglys, treated this property as their own and maintained it by mowing the lawn, planting flowers, and adding lawn ornaments. Decades later, when the neighbors started arguing over placement of a new fence, the Mattinglys had the property surveyed and learned the actual boundary did not include the property at issue. They sued to gain legal title through adverse possession.
Although the courts considered many types of evidence regarding the Mattinglys use and control over the property, the placement of the fence was a key factor. The court also noted that while the Mattinglys stopped asserting control over the property after the survey, they had already exercised control for over 20 years and thus had already gained legal ownership through adverse possession by the time the survey took place.
Talk to an Adverse Possession Lawyer if You Might Stand to Gain or Lose Property
The bottom line is that use and control can be more important than legal paperwork when it comes to real property ownership in Maryland. If you think you could possibly lose legal ownership of property due to someone else’s occupation or if you believe you may have gained ownership through adverse possession, it is a good idea to talk to an attorney. At the Law Office of Ralph W. Powers, Jr., P.C., we would be happy to review your situation and help you choose the best option to protect your rights and interests.