As a general rule in Oklahoma, one’s ownership of land must be in writing to be enforceable. You need a deed or conveyance indicating that you are the true owner. But there is an important exception to this rule, known as adverse possession. Whether you’re a property owner in Oklahoma City suburbs or a farmer outside Tulsa, you likely have several neighbors bordering your land. While it may seem surprising, those neighbors might be able to gain legal title to pieces of your property through adverse possession. And while it might be less likely, an unknown trespasser can also squat on your Oklahoma 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 Oklahoma’s adverse possession laws. 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 his or her property while another has been using or caring for it for so long that to make him or her leave would create hardship.
Adverse possession in Oklahoma is controlled by statute, but also by the courts. Importantly, the burden of proof to establish a claim of adverse possession is on the trespasser. The legal holder of title is the presumed owner until the adverse possessor can meet that burden and prove to a judge that he or she should be named the true legal owner of the land.
There is no single statute in Oklahoma that spells out the elements that a trespasser must establish in order to prove adverse possession. Rather, the courts have set out a variety of such factors over many decades. As in most states, adverse possession in Oklahoma 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:
Imagine that Ross and Rachel live next to one another in Bloomington. There is no dividing fence or boundary between their yards. Ross builds an elaborate wooden playhouse for his kids that is actually on Rachel’s side of the property, covering about 12 square feet of earth. Rachel doesn’t say anything. Ross hangs out and his kids play on the structure as if it were theirs, on Ross's own land. They do this for 15 years. Under the rubric described above, Ross can probably establish that he “owns” the land on which he and his children were encroaching. Rachel could have stopped Ross by asking, over those 15 years, that he remove the playhouse, or sign a rental agreement. But Oklahoma courts won’t let her suddenly eject Ross after failing to exercise her rights for more than a decade.
The doctrine of adverse possession protects one 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 Oklahoma, 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 15 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 Ross built the playhouse knowing that he was on Rachel’s land, or whether he built it mistakenly thinking he was doing so on his own land. His intent has no bearing on his eventual claim for title under adverse possession.
It is the general rule that title by adverse possession cannot be acquired as to public Oklahoma property. Land held by Oklahoma’s state and municipal government entities are generally immune from adverse possession actions. That means that title to public lands usually can’t be acquired by adverse possession. So, if you live next to Red Rock Canyons State Park, you won’t be able to expand your backyard merely by mowing the lawn or building a shed there and waiting 15 years. Oklahoma will still “own” it.