Whether you own a brownstone in downtown Las Vegas or a large parcel of land in Reno, your home is probably your most valuable asset. You should do everything in your power to protect it. If you’re a property owner in Nevada, 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. And while it might be less likely, an unknown trespasser can also squat on your land and develop the same type of claim to legal ownership.
To make sure that your land remains yours and that a neighbor can’t claim a portion of it, you should familiarize yourself with the Nevada’s rules on adverse possession. There may also be times when you yourself 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 allows a trespasser—sometimes a stranger but more often a neighbor—to gain legal title over the land of a property owner. The concept developed in early Britain. More recently, though, the law’s function 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 depart would be unjust or create hardship.
Adverse possession in Nevada is controlled by statute as well as by the state courts. Importantly, the burden of proof to establish a claim of adverse possession is on the trespasser. The legal holder of title is its presumed owner until the adverse possessor can meet that burden. In other words, it is entirely the trespasser’s job to prove that the judge should give him or her ownership over the land.
There is no single statute in Nevada that spells out the elements that a trespasser must establish in order to prove adverse possession. Rather, the courts have established a variety of such factors over many decades. As in most states, adverse possession in Nevada 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:
For example, imagine that Lenny and Lucy are neighbors in a suburb outside of Las Vegas. There is no dividing fence or boundary between their yards. Lenny builds a pottery kiln that is actually on Lucy’s side of the property, covering about ten square feet of earth. Lucy doesn’t say anything. Lenny uses the kiln as if it were on his own land. He does this for five years and pays all applicable property taxes. Under the rubric described above, Lenny can probably establish that he “owns” the land on which he was encroaching. Lucy could have stopped Lenny by asking, over those five years, that he remove his kiln, or sign a rental agreement that clarifies the nature of Lenny's use. But Nevada courts won’t let Lucy suddenly eject Lenny after she sat on her rights for more than the five-year statutory period.
In Nevada, unlike in many other states, a trespasser faces an especially challenging requirement for acquiring title through adverse possession. The trespasser must show payment of all applicable property taxes on the parcel in question for the full five-year period pursuant to Nev. Rev. Stat. § 11.150. Without proof of this payment, mere possession will not be enough.
The doctrine of adverse possession 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 another for the specific purpose of acquiring title. In other words, in Nevada, there is no requirement that the entry and continued possession of the property be done with knowing or intentional hostility.
Rather, any entry and possession for the required five 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 Lenny built the kiln knowing that he was on Lucy’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 land? Chances are, it’s an innocent mistake on the person's part.
Given that, your first step should be to nicely ask the trespasser to move. Chances are, the person will comply. If not, you may be forced to consult a lawyer and bring an action to quiet title—a legal method for determining who has title to a particular piece of land.
In an action to quiet title, you’re asking a Nevada 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 Nevada state and municipal 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 Reno, you won’t be able to expand your backyard merely by mowing the lawn or building a structure and waiting five years. The state of Nevada will still “own” it.