As a property owner in Louisiana, you likely have two or three neighbors whose land borders yours. Bizarrely enough, those neighbors might be able to gain legal title to pieces of your property under a legal concept commonly called adverse possession, or in Louisiana, "acquisitive prescription." And while less likely, an unknown trespasser could also squat on your land and develop a claim to legal ownership.
To make sure that your land remains yours and that a neighbor can't lay claim to a portion of it, it's wise to familiarize yourself with Louisiana's rules on adverse possession. Also, you yourself might someday need to assert an adverse possession claim over land that you feel you've developed a right to use and want to continue using.
Adverse possession is a legal concept that developed in early modern Europe. The basic concept is 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 that person leave would create hardship.
Adverse possession is normally called "acquisitive prescription" in Louisiana, and is controlled by state statute as well as by the courts. Importantly, the burden of proof to establish a claim of adverse possession is on the trespasser. The legal holder of title to the land has the presumption of ownership until the adverse possessor can meet that burden. In other words, it is the trespasser's job to prove that the judge should transfer legal ownership of the land.
As in most states, adverse possession in Louisiana is established from the nature of a trespasser's possession and the length of time the trespasser possesses the land. A trespasser's possession must, under La Civ. Code Art. 374 and La. Civ. Code Art. 3476, be:
For example, imagine that Sherry and Marty live next to one another in New Orleans. The two yards were divided by a low hedge. But after a portion of the hedge dies, Marty clears it and builds a shed that's actually on Sherry's side of the property, then surrounds it with a low fence. Sherry doesn't say anything. Marty uses the shed as if it were on his own land. He does this for 31 years. Under the rubric described above, Marty can probably establish that he "owns" the land on which he was encroaching. Sherry could have stopped Marty by asking, over those years, that he remove his fence and shed, or sign a rental agreement. But Louisiana courts won't let her suddenly eject Marty after having sat on her rights for more than three decades.
The doctrine of adverse possession or acquisitive prescription 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. In other words, in Louisiana, there is no requirement that the entry and continued possession of the property be done with knowing or intentional hostility.
In our example above, it doesn't matter whether Marty built the shed knowing that he was on Sherry's land, or whether he built it mistakenly thinking it was on his own land. This aspect of his intent has no bearing on his eventual claim for title under adverse possession. He must, however, prove that he intended to possess the property as its owner.
What should you do if you spot a trespasser or a neighbor encroaching on your land? Chances are, it's an innocent mistake on their part. Given that, your first step should be to nicely ask the person to move. More often than not, the person will comply.
Or if you don't mind the person being on your land, so long as it's temporary or perhaps accompanied by a payment of rent, you could grant permission for the use, in writing. That would turn the trespasser into either a "precarious possessor" (who possesses with the permission of or on behalf of the true owner) or a tenant.
If one of these steps doesn't work, you might be forced to consult a lawyer and bring an action to quiet title—a legal method for determining who owns a piece of land. In an action to quiet title, you're asking a Louisiana 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 Louisiana's 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. So, if you live next to an unused state park in Baton Rouge, you won't be able to expand your backyard by planting a garden and waiting a decade. Louisiana will retain legal ownership.