For most Oregonians, their home is their most valuable single possession. Under Oregon law, however, neighbors or trespassers can actually gain legal title to portions of (or all of) your land over time. Adverse possession is a legal doctrine that essentially allows trespassers on a piece of land to gain ownership rights if the true owner doesn't stop them within a certain period of time. That period is ten years in Oregon.
To ensure that all of your land remains yours, you must keep an eye on your property lines. Moreover, you yourself might one day want to assert a claim for adverse possession against another individual's land. Either way, you'll need to learn about Oregon's adverse possession laws.
In Oregon, adverse possession is defined and regulated by statute as well as the state courts. Of course, there are hurdles to clear before someone can claim a piece of your Oregon land using this theory; particularly because the goal is not to punish property owners, but simply to achieve a fair result when someone has been using and perhaps caring for the property in a situation where the legal owner seems not to have minded.
One major hurdle for trespassers is that the burden of proof to establish a claim of adverse possession is on them. 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 an easement to use your driveway to access their home. 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.
As in most states, adverse possession in Oregon is established based on the nature of a trespasser's possession and the length of time they possess the land. A trespasser's possession must, in Oregon, be:
The requirement that adverse possessors in Oregon have some written claim to title creates a particularly high hurdle. Unlike in some states, they must prove that when they first entered into possession of the property, they honestly believed that they owned it (even if it was a mistaken belief). What's more, that belief must have continued through the whole ten years, have an objective basis, and have been reasonable under the particular circumstances.
What should you do if you spot a trespasser or a neighbor encroaching on your Oregon land? Your first move, of course, should be to speak with the person and ask that they remove all structures from, and refrain from entering onto, your property. If it's an innocent mistake, they are likely to comply.
If the trespass continues—especially if the individual asserts a claim of ownership—you might want to consult a lawyer and bring an action to quiet title. This is a legal method for determining the rightful owner of land. It essentially asks an Oregon state court judge (one of Oregon's Circuit Courts) to issue an order declaring that you, and not the trespasser, are the true owner (and title holder) of the property in question.
This order is particularly helpful if you are planning to sell your Oregon property, and need to reassure potential buyers that, for example, your neighbor's lawn furniture isn't a permanent fixture, or that you will actually be conveying all the land your title appears to include.
You might also be able to claim financial damages for the person having withheld possession of your land. (Or. Rev. Stat. § 105.005.)