If you are a homeowner in South Carolina, your home is your single most valuable asset. Given that, you have good reason to make yourself aware of the dangers of trespassers establishing legal claims to your property based on the legal doctrine known as "adverse possession."
Adverse possession essentially allows a trespasser onto a piece of land to gain ownership of that land if the true owner fails to object within a certain period of time. Sometimes, this trespasser is a squatter; perhaps someone you’ve never met before. Other times, this trespasser could be your next-door neighbor.
To make sure that all of your South Carolina land remains yours, it makes sense to keep an eye on your property lines and any encroachments. 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 South Carolina’s adverse possession laws.
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.
South Carolina courts continue to enforce this doctrine 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 him or her leave would seem unfair, or create hardship. In other words, if a trespasser spends enough time caring for a piece of property that the true owner has perhaps neglected, and the true owner makes no objection, a court might award “ownership” to the trespasser.
Of course, there are hurdles to clear before someone can claim a piece of your South Carolina land using this theory. One major hurdle is that 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 an easement to use your driveway to access his or her house. 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.
There is no single statute in South Carolina that dictates 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 of issuing decisions in individual cases.
As in most states, adverse possession in South Carolina is established from 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 is ten years in South Carolina, under S.C. Code Ann. § 15-67-210).
Imagine that Eric and Brian live next to one another in a suburb outside of Little Rock. Without a wall between their properties, Eric plants trees on what is technically Brian’s land. Eventually, Eric builds an entire porch there. Brian never says anything. The years pass—ten years, in fact.
Under South Carolina's adverse possession framework, Eric will likely be successful in establishing an ownership claim to that portion of Brian’s property. Note that he won’t be able to take over all of Brian’s land—only the portion upon which he constructed the porch and which he actively used for those seven years. South Carolina courts would be reluctant to suddenly eject Eric and his porch and trees after so much time has passed.
In most American states, it makes no legal difference whether the trespasser knows that he or she is trespassing. A trespasser could gain adverse possession even after mistakenly believing the land to be his or her own.
This is not so in South Carolina. In South Carolina, it’s both the trespasser's intent and the possession that matter. The trespasser must at least allege having known that the land belonged to someone else, but occupied it for ten years anyway.
What should you do if you spot a trespasser or a neighbor encroaching on your South Carolina 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 South Carolina 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 property that is held by South Carolina’s state and local government entities is typically immune from adverse possession actions. So, if you live next to an unused state park in Charleston, you won’t be able to “annex” a larger yard by building a structure there and waiting ten years. South Carolina’s government always has first priority when it comes to ownership.