Wyoming might be the least populous state in the nation, but if you are a homeowner in Wyoming, your home is doutbtless 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 of adverse possession.
Adverse possession, a legal concept that exists in all 50 states, 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. Although the specific requirements vary from one state to the next, homeowners need to be aware that their property could be in jeopardy. Sometimes, this trespasser is someone the homeowner has never met before. Other times, this trespasser could be a next-door neighbor.
To make sure that all of your Wyoming 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 Wyoming’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.
Wyoming 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 Wyoming 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 Wyoming that 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.
As in most states, adverse possession in Wyoming 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 Wyoming under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-103); and be accompanied by full payment of taxes over those years.
Imagine that Rachel and Ron live next to one another in a suburb outside of Cheyenne. Without a wall between their properties, Rachel plants fruit trees and vegetables on what is technically Ron's land. Eventually, Rachel builds an entire gardening shed there. Ron never says anything. The years pass—ten years, in fact.
Under Wyoming adverse possession framework, Rachel will likely be successful in establishing an ownership claim to that portion of Ron's property. Note that she won’t be able to take over all of Ron's land—only the portion upon which she constructed the gardening shed and which she actively used for those ten years. Wyoming judges would be reluctant to eject Rachel from the land she's using after so much time has passed.
In most American states, it does not matter 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 Wyoming. In Wyoming, 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 Wyoming 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 Wyoming District 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 Wyoming’s state and local government entities is typically immune from adverse possession actions. So, if you live next to an unused state park in Cheyenne, you won’t be able to “annex” a larger yard by building a structure there and waiting ten years. Wyoming’s government always has first priority when it comes to ownership.