Imagine that you live in a suburban home outside of Jefferson City, Missouri. You notice that a neighbor has planted a garden on your “side” of the property line. At first, you might not think much of this. But in Missouri, like other states, this seemingly harmless action could lead to a permanent claim over “your” property by your neighbor, under a legal doctrine known as adverse possession.
For most Americans and most Missourians, their home is their single most valuable asset. To make sure that all of your Missouri land remains yours, it makes sense to keep an eye on your property lines. Moreover, you yourself may eventually want to assert a claim for adverse possession against another individual’s land. Either way, you’ll need to learn about adverse possession laws in the Show Me State.
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.
Missouri state courts continue to enforce 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 seem unjust, or create hardship. In other words, if a trespasser spends enough time caring for a piece of property that the true owner has neglected or even forgotten about, 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 Missouri land using this theory. For one, 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 a legal right 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.
Adverse possession is also different from many other types of neighbor disputes that might develop with your Missouri neighbor, such as arguments about tree branches or noise. Adverse possession goes to the heart of your property rights.
No single statute in Missouri 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. Courts look in particular at the nature of a trespasser’s possession and the length of time the person possesses the land.
A trespasser’s possession must be (i) hostile (against the right of the true owner and without permission); (ii) actual (exercising control over the property); (iii) exclusive (in the possession of the trespasser alone); (iv) open and notorious (using the property as the real owner would, without hiding his or her occupancy); and (v) continuous for the statutory period (which in ten years in Missouri, under Mo. Stat. Ann. § 516.010).
Imagine, for example, that Morgan and Ben are neighbors in St. Louis. Without a wall between their properties, Morgan plants trees on what is technically Ben’s land. Eventually, Morgan builds an entire porch there. Ben says nothing. The years pass—ten years, in fact.
Under Missouri’s adverse possession framework, Morgan will likely be successful in establishing an ownership claim to that portion of Ben’s property. Note that he won’t be able to take over all of Ben’s land—only the portion upon which he constructed the patio and which he actively used for those ten years. Missouri courts would be hesitant to eject Morgan and his patio after so much time has passed.
What should you do if you spot a trespasser or a neighbor encroaching on your Missouri 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 may 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 Missouri 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.
Any land that is held by Missouri’s state and local government entities is typically immune from adverse possession actions. So, if you live next to an unused or abandoned state park in Kansas City, you won’t be able to “annex” a larger yard by building a shed and waiting two decades. Missouri’s government always has first priority when it comes to ownership.