If own your home in Connecticut, you likely have two or three neighbors whose land borders yours. While it may seem surprising, those neighbors might be able to gain legal title to pieces of your property under a legal concept called adverse possession. Even an unknown trespasser might, using the same legal theory, squat on your land and eventually develop the same type of claim to title.
To make sure that all of your land remains yours and yours alone, it makes sense to keep an eye on your property lines and learn about Connecticut’s laws on adverse possession. In fact, there may also come a time when you yourself decide to put forth an adverse possession claim, over land that you have been using for a long time, such that you feel it has essentially become yours.
Adverse possession is a legal concept that allows a trespasser – sometimes a stranger but more often a neighbor – to gain legal title over someone else's land. The concept first developed in early Britain. It has been kept alive in order to achieve a fair result when one owner has neglected or forgotten about a piece of land while another has been using or caring for it for so long that to make him or her leave would create hardship.
Adverse possession in Connecticut is regulated by statute, but also by the state courts. Of course, there are some hurdles to clear before someone can claim a piece of your Connecticut land using this theory. One major hurdle is that the burden of proof to establish a claim of adverse possession is on the trespasser. In other words, if you hold legal title to a piece of land, you are its presumed owner until and unless the adverse possessor can convince a judge to give him or her ownership over all or a portion of it.
Adverse possession should not be confused with having an easement to use another person's property -- for example, when a neighbor has an easement to use your driveway to access his or her property. Easements involve shared rights with others in pieces of property, whereas adverse possession results in a shift in title, and the corresponding right to exclude others from the property. Read more about easements.
There is no single statute in Connecticut that spells out the elements that a trespasser must establish to prove adverse possession. Rather, the courts have established a variety of such factors over many decades of issuing decisions in individual cases. As in most states, adverse possession in Connecticut is established from the nature of a trespasser’s possession and the length of time he or she possesses the land. A trespasser’s possession must be:
1) hostile (against the right of the true owner and without permission)
2) actual (exercising control over the property)
3) exclusive (in the possession of the trespasser alone)
4) open and notorious (using the property as the real owner would, without hiding his or her occupancy), and
5) continuous for the statutory period (which is 15 years in Connecticut under Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 52-575).
In addition to these common factors, Connecticut courts have also repeated certain pieces of evidence that are likely to weigh in favor of granting a trespasser adverse possession. These include (1) the trespasser having supposedly purchased the land, in good faith; (2) the trespasser having paid taxes on the property; (3) the trespasser having made repeated attempts to exclude others from the land, and (4) the trespasser holding a deed that includes the disputed land. As you can see, these mainly address situations where there was confusion over ownership rather than an outright attempt to take over another person's land. None of these factors are determinative, but they seem to weigh on the minds of Connecticut judges.
Let’s imagine that Tom and Frank live next to one another in New Haven. No clear fence or boundary divides their properties. Tom, an avid gardener, erects a toolshed that is actually on Frank’s side of the property, covering about 12 square feet of earth. Frank doesn’t say anything. Tom uses the toolshed as if it were on his own land. He does this for 15 years. Under the rubric described above, Tom can probably establish that he “owns” the land on which he was encroaching. Frank could have stopped Tom by asking, over those 15 years, that he remove his toolshed, or sign a rental agreement, which would serve to show that the usage was by permission, rather than hostile. But Connecticut courts won’t let him suddenly remove Tom after he sat on his rights for more than a decade.
The doctrine of adverse possession protects a person who has honestly entered and held possession of land while believing that he or she actually owned it, as well as a person who knowingly appropriates the land of others for the specific purpose of acquiring title. In other words, in Connecticut, there is no requirement that the trespassers entry and continued possession of the property be done with knowing or intentional hostility.
Rather, any entry and possession for the required 15 years that is exclusive, continuous, hostile, actual, and open – even if under a mistaken claim of title – is sufficient to support a claim of title by adverse possession. In our example above, it doesn’t matter whether Tom built the toolshed knowing that he was on Frank’s land, or whether he built it mistakenly thinking it was on his own land. His intent has no bearing on his eventual claim for title under adverse possession.
What should you do if you spot a trespasser or a neighbor encroaching on your Connecticut land? Your first move, of course, is to speak with the person and ask that he or she remove all structures from and refrain from entering onto your property. More often than not, if it’s an innocent mistake, the person will comply.
If the trespass continues, you may want to consult a lawyer and bring an action to quiet title – a legal method for determining the rightful owner of title to land. In an action to quiet title, you’re asking a Connecticut state court judge to issue an order declaring that you, and not the trespasser, are the true owner of the land. This order is particularly helpful if you are seeking to sell your property, and need to reassure potential buyers.
Land held by Connecticut’s state and local government entities is generally immune from adverse possession actions. So, if you live next to an unused state park in Stamford, you won’t be able to expand your backyard merely by mowing the lawn or building a shed and waiting 15 years. The state of Connecticut will still “own” it.