A claim to ownership of another person’s property based on adverse possession does not happen overnight. For a trespasser to gain title, he or she must use – essentially, squat on – the property for a number of years. Each state has its own required statutory period, all of which are outlined in Nolo’s State-By-State Rules on Adverse Possession. Generally speaking, most states require possession of the disputed piece of property for at least ten continuous years.
“Continuous” means “uninterrupted,” though the possessor certainly doesn’t need to maintain a 24-hour daily vigil. If the statutory period for your state is ten years, and you manage to adversely possess a piece of land for nine years before the true owner calls the police, that’s obviously not enough time.
What if you possess the land for a total of 11 years, but you miss a year in the middle because you temporarily lived in a different state? Unfortunately, this isn’t continuous possession. If you took a break at year five, the ten-year clock begins to run from the beginning of your renewed possession.
Fortunately for claimants, if you’ve already hit the ten-year mark, but leave the state at year 11, you do not lose any of the adverse possession rights you’ve acquired. That is, a break in possession after the acquisition of title by adverse possession will have no effect on the rights acquired.
Not all property is used 365 days each year. A typical owner probably wouldn’t use a pond or swimming pool every day, but would wait for warmer weather. A typical owner also wouldn’t use a ski lodge every day; the owner would wait for winter snow.
For a trespasser trying to gain title to these types of pieces of property, seasonal occupation is acceptable as long as it’s in a manner consistent with how the true owner would use the property. So, in short, the requirement of continuity of possession is satisfied with activities that are seasonal in character.
If you are trying to establish adverse possession over a neighbor’s pond, for example, you need only swim in it each summer for the statutory period – not in January. Similarly, if you are trying to establish adverse possession over a skiing hill, you need only ski on it each winter – not in August.
While possession over a piece of land must be continuous for the statutory period, the possession doesn’t always need to be by the same person in order to support an adverse possession claim.
If two adverse possessors are in “privity” with one another, then most courts will allow the second adverse possessor to “tack” or combine his or her time on the land with the time spent by the first adverse possessor. Privity is a legal term that essentially means that there’s a direct connection between the two parties. It can be established in several ways, such as by lease, descent, or outright sale.
For example, imagine that the statutory period for adverse possession in your state is ten years. Martha has adversely possessed a vacant lot in her neighborhood for seven years, and then sells her interest in the lot to Jane.
Jane then occupies the land for another three years. This would likely meet the statutory requirement for ten years of continuity, giving Jane the ability to gain title by adverse possession even though she herself did not possess the land for the full ten years.