Who Can Claim Property Based on Adverse Possession in Kentucky?

Kentucky law allows people who trespass and encroach on other's land for a minimum time period to develop an ownership claim to the property.

Your home might be your single most valuable asset. That's why you'll want to be aware of the dangers of trespassers establishing legal claims to the property based on the legal concept of adverse possession. This doctrine essentially allows a trespasser onto a piece of land to gain ownership of that land if the true owner fails to object within a certain period of time. To make sure that all of your Kentucky land remains yours, it makes sense to keep an eye on your property lines.

Moreover, you yourself might eventually want to assert a claim for adverse possession against another individual's land. Either way, you'll need to learn about Kentucky's adverse possession laws.

Is Kentucky's Adverse Possession Law Fair?

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 modern Europe, with fairness as its very basis.

Kentucky courts continue to enforce what they see as 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 seem unfair, or create hardship. In other words, if a trespasser spends enough time caring for a piece of property that the true owner has neglected, and the true owner makes no objection, a court might award "ownership" to the trespasser.

Of course, there are some hurdles to clear before someone can claim a piece of your Kentucky 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 come up with enough compelling evidence and arguments to convince a judge to grant 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.

Kentucky's Requirements for Adverse Possession

There is no single statute in Kentucky that dictates 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 Kentucky 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:

  • actual (including an entry onto and actions that exercise control over the property)
  • hostile (obviously made against the right of the true owner and without permission)
  • exclusive (in the possession of the trespasser alone, basically keeping the owner out)
  • open and notorious (using the property as the real owner would, without hiding his or her occupancy from the owner or others; actually building structures is the classic way to do this)
  • continuous for the statutory period (which is 15 years in Kentucky, under Ken. Rev. Stat. § 413.010), and
  • definite, meaning that trespassers must show the extent of their claim by well-defined boundaries such as a fence, or prove that they have what's called "color of title" (some sort of document seeming to indicate they actually own the land). (See Gillis v. Martin, 145 S.W.2d 1051, 1052 (Ky. 1940).)

In addition, Kentucky law attempts to protect landowners by stating that people who use another's land solely for recreational purposes (such as hiking, camping, swimming, hunting, fishing, or boating) cannot establish a claim for adverse possession there.(See Ken. Rev. Stat § 411.190.)

Let's take an example. Imagine that Eric and Brian live next to one another in a suburb outside of Lexington, Kentucky. Without a wall between their properties, Eric plants a line of shrubs on what is technically Brian's land. Eventually, Eric builds an entire porch within the border of shrubs. Brian never says anything. The years pass—15 years, in fact. Eric will likely be successful in establishing an ownership claim to that portion of Brian's property. Note that he won't be able to take over all of Brian's land—only the portion upon which he constructed the patio and border of shrubs, which he actively used for those two decades. Kentucky courts would be reluctant to suddenly eject Eric and his patio after so much time has passed.

Kentucky's Limit for Claims Under Color of Title

Normally, trespassers must occupy the subject land for 15 years under Kentucky law before they can make a claim of ownership. However, there is an exception: If a trespasser can establish that he occupied the land "under color of title"; meaning proof that he is actually the true owner, then the limitation period is only seven years, under Ken. Rev. Stat. § 413.060.

How can one establish "color of title"? Sometimes property deeds or records in the county clerk's office will be ambiguous as to boundaries, implying that the trespasser indeed was the true owner. This would be enough to establish the shorter limitations period.

Cutting Off an Adverse Possession Claim With Action to Quiet Title

What should you do if you spot a trespasser or a neighbor encroaching on your Kentucky 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. If it's an innocent mistake, the person is likely to comply.

If the trespass continues, you might want to consult a lawyer and bring an action to quiet title. This is a legal method for determining the rightful owner of land.

In an action to quiet title, you're asking a Kentucky state court judge to issue an order declaring that you, and not the trespasser, are the true owner (and title holder) of the land. This order is particularly helpful if you are seeking to sell your property, and need to reassure potential buyers.

No Adverse Possession Claims Possible Against Government Land

Any property that is held by Kentucky's state and local government entities is typically immune from adverse possession actions. So, if you live next to an unused state park in Lexington, you won't be able to "annex" a larger yard by building a shed and waiting two decades. Kentucky's government always has first priority when it comes to ownership.

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