If you're a property owner in Michigan, you likely have two or three neighbors whose land borders yours. Surprising as it might seem, those neighbors might be able to gain legal title to pieces of your property under a legal concept called "adverse possession." And while potentially less likely, an unknown trespasser could also squat on your land and develop a "rightful" claim to legal ownership.
To make sure that all your land remains yours, you might wish to familiarize yourself with Michigan's laws on adverse possession. There might even arise an occasion when you yourself decide to assert an adverse possession claim, over land that you have been using for a long time, and therefore feel you've developed a right to own and keep.
Adverse possession is an age-old legal concept from Britain. It has continued into modern times as a way 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 be unfair, or create hardship.
Adverse possession in Michigan is regulated by state statute as well as by the courts. They make sure that a trespasser doesn't have too easy a time of claiming another's property, by placing the burden of proof on the trespasser. The legal holder of title to the land is the presumed owner until the adverse possessor can meet that burden. In other words, it is the trespasser's job to prove that a Michigan judge should hand over title to and ownership of the piece of land.
As in most states, adverse possession in Michigan is established from the nature of a trespasser's possession and the length of time they possessed the land. A trespasser's possession must be:
(See, for example, Connelly v. Buckingham, 136 Mich.App. 462, 467–468, 357 N.W.2d 70 (1984).)
For example, imagine that Peter and Paul live next to one another in Ann Arbor. There is no dividing fence or boundary between their yards. Peter builds a playhouse for his children that he believes to be on his land (based on some faulty plat maps) but that is actually on Paul's side of the property, covering about eight square feet of earth. Paul doesn't say anything. Peter and his children use the playhouse as if it were on their own land. They do this for 15 years. Under the rubric described above, Peter can potentially establish that he "owns" the land on which he was encroaching. Paul could have stopped Peter by asked, over those 15 years, that he remove the playhouse or sign a rental agreement to indicate that the use was by consent rather than a hostile act. But Michigan courts won't let him suddenly eject Peter after having sat on his rights for so long.
What should you do if you spot a trespasser or a neighbor encroaching on your land and you don't want to give that person express permission to do so? Your first step, of course, should be to speak up. Ask the person to remove any structures or plants and stop using your land.
More often than not, if it's an innocent mistake, the trespasser will comply. If that doesn't happen, your next step should be to consult a lawyer. You can bring what's called an action to "quiet title"—a legal method for determining title to land. You would be asking a Michigan state court judge to issue an order declaring that you, and not the trespasser, are the true owner of the land in question. Such an order is particularly helpful if you are seeking to sell your property, and need to reassure potential buyers that they'll be getting what they pay for.
Land held by Michigan's state and municipal government entities are generally immune from adverse possession actions. So, if you live next to an unused state park in Grand Rapids, you won't be able to expand your backyard merely by mowing the lawn or building a shed and waiting 15 years. The state will still "own" every inch of that property.