Have you ever wondered where exactly your property ends? Maybe you’ve always relied on a landmark, like a tree or a fire hydrant, to know where you have to stop cutting your grass. Or maybe you’re concerned that your neighbor’s bright, new fence somehow makes your backyard feel a lot smaller. Whether or not you have a specific reason, it’s not a bad idea to know the official limits of your property. Being aware of the official boundaries of your land—and importantly, treating them as such—can help you avoid legal property disputes that are nearly always costly, lengthy, and preventable.
In Utah, the legal boundaries of your land can change without the surrendered (or acquired) portion being purchased and contrary to the results of parcel surveys. One of the ways through which this may occur is known as “boundary by acquiescence.” This legal doctrine may settle property disputes between adjoining landowners, and it has four essential elements: those wishing to establish boundary by acquiescence must show, by clear and convincing evidence, that (1) there is a visible line marked by monuments, fences, buildings, or natural features treated as a boundary; (2) the claimant’s occupation of his or her property up to the visible line is such that it would give a reasonable landowner notice that the claimant is using the line as a boundary; (3) there is mutual acquiescence [consent] in the line as a boundary by adjoining landowners; and (4) such acquiescence has continued for at least 20 years. See Anderson v. Fautin, 2016 UT 22.
Such a high standard for a boundary by acquiescence claim may seem hard to reach; after all, who would willingly give up part of their property? That said, it happens more often than one may think. Often, land will be sold from one owner to the next with a fence or other physical boundary in place. As it passes from owner to owner, that fence stays in place, and it is treated as a functional boundary for periods exceeding 20 years. By the time a current owner finds out that he or she should own land beyond the fence, it may be too late. When a boundary by acquiescence claim is brought forth in court and the claimant can prove each of these elements to the court’s satisfaction, any existing property records (such as the results of a survey) may become irrelevant; the court can quiet the title of the land to reflect the longstanding, mutually accepted boundary.
One of the key elements of a boundary by acquiescence claim is that both parties treat a boundary as the functional limit of their properties—regardless of knowledge that such is not the surveyed boundary. This means that it is important to react to encroachments on your land within a reasonable timeframe. Indeed, the very purpose of the doctrine of boundary by acquiescence is to preserve peace and order when no one has complained about or responded to encroachments for a long period of time. See Hobson v. Panguitch Lake Corp., 530 P.2d 792, 794 (Utah 1975). You can prevent such a claim from being made against you by clearly asserting your use of the entirety of your property.
If you have reason to believe that your neighbor has recently encroached on your land, or if you are purchasing land and want to avoid boundary disputes, Sumsion Business Law can help. Our experienced attorneys are eager to help you navigate this potentially stressful experience.