Adverse possession—a legal concept dating back to the Middle Ages—could pose a threat to your Alabama land. How? You likely have two or three neighbors whose property borders yours. While surprising, those neighbors might be able to gain legal title to pieces of your property. And though less likely, the law also allows an unknown trespasser—not a neighbor whom you know—to squat on land and develop the same type of claim to ownership.
To make sure that your land remains yours, it's worth familiarizing yourself with Alabama's rules on adverse possession. There might even be times when you yourself need to assert an adverse possession claim, over land that you feel you've developed a right to use and want to continue using.
There are actually two types of adverse possession in Alabama: adverse possession by prescription, based on common law (state court decisions made over many decades) and adverse possession with color of title, based on law passed by the state legislature, namely Ala. Code Ann. § 6-5-200.
As in most states, adverse possession by "prescription" in Alabama is established from the nature of a trespasser's possession and the length of time the person possesses the land. A trespasser's possession must be:
Imagine, by way of example, that Ben comes across what appears to be a vacant lot in Daphne, but which is actually owned by Mary, who lives elsewhere. Ben builds a studio there, plants trees, and repairs the fence. Mary doesn't say anything. Ben does this for 20 years. Under the rubric described above, Ben can probably establish that he "owns" the land on which he was encroaching. Mary could have stopped Ben by asking that he get out, or insisting that he sign a rental agreement. But Alabama courts won't let Mary kick out Mary after she ignored her rights for a full two decades.
In cases where someone actually has reason to believe they own the land in question, such as a faulty deed, the adverse possession period actually drops to ten years. However, the trespasser must show all the elements of adverse possession described above; and must, in addition, produce a copy of a recorded deed or other title document purporting to convey title to him or her or a predecessor in interest; and that if currently possessing the land, he or she has paid taxes on it if required.
In some states, a crucial legal determination is whether the trespasser knew that he or she was trespassing, and/or acted in good faith. In Alabama, this does not matter. The doctrine of adverse possession protects someone who has honestly entered and held possession in the belief that the land is his or her own, as well as one who knowingly appropriates the land of others for the specific purpose of acquiring title.
What should you do if you spot a trespasser or a neighbor encroaching on your land? Chances are, it's an innocent mistake. Your first step should be to politely ask the trespasser to move and to remove any structures or property on your land.
If the trespasser does not comply, you might be forced to consult a lawyer and bring legal action; most likely an action to "quiet title." This means asking a court to determine who holds title to land, and hopefully issue an order declaring that you, and not the trespasser, are its true owner.
A quiet title order is particularly helpful if you are intending to sell your property, and will need to reassure potential buyers about its boundaries and rightful ownership.
Land held by Alabama state and municipal government entities are generally immune from adverse possession actions. In other words, title to public lands generally can't be acquired by adverse possession as against the state of Alabama. Therefore, if you live next to an empty field in Birmingham, you won't be able to expand your backyard merely by mowing the lawn and waiting 20 years. The state of Alabama will still "own" that land.