If it were easy to resolve a boundary dispute, half the wars in history might never have been fought -- and hundreds of millions of people would get along much better with their neighbors. Disagreements about boundary lines, property rights, access, and other points of land ownership can last for centuries and have enormous consequences. However, in most cases, boundary disputes only matter to the two property owners with two adjoining lots who disagree on where exactly the property boundary line falls. And yet, there is a government office in every county dedicated to keeping records of it and helping track ownership. Not to mention the court system and all the lawyers.
So you have a dispute with a neighbor. What’s next?
The questions to ask yourself when you’re thinking of getting into a boundary dispute:
- How well do you understand your own claim?
- Are you sure your neighbor doesn’t have legal documentation that makes their own claim valid as yours?
- Are you willing to compromise, and to what extent?
- If not, are you willing to take your dispute to trial?
- If so, how much time and money are you willing to spend?
The first two questions can be thoroughly answered by running a title search and pulling your own land survey. Then, compare those records side by side with your neighbors. You may be surprised by what you find.
For instance: One person’s property boundaries might be drawn slightly differently than the other’s because they each used different surveyors, leaving both of them certain of ownership when nothing is certain at all.
One person might have been deeded the property by a previous owner who didn’t inform the new owner at the time of sale.
There might be a disagreement as to an easement, which is a legal permission for a neighbor to use the land without ever obtaining ownership of it.
If both parties in a land dispute genuinely want to resolve it, there’s usually a way to share the land access or compromise about the points of usage.
Figuring out whether you have a case
Before you tell the neighborhood, and potentially the courts, about your grievance, make sure you really know the particulars.
Commissioning another land survey
This is a levelheaded and strategic step if the existing documentation doesn’t resolve the difference of opinion. If two people disagree on a property boundary because they have different information from two different land surveyors, then an impartial new survey could potentially determine who is correct.
If one party is simply unwilling to talk or compare documentation, then a common tactic is for the other party to send a demand letter -- or multiple. These letters don’t just state one person’s side of the dispute; they stipulate what should be done to rectify it. Before you send a demand letter, consult with a lawyer to make sure you really do have a legitimate claim. It won’t do you any good to escalate a dispute if ultimately you’ll end up going to court and losing.
While a demand letter might not make an unwilling party more prone to sit down at the table and discuss the situation amicably, the letter lays the groundwork for taking legal action. It lets the opposing party know that this is where the dispute is heading.
Some people want to skip this step and go straight to filing at the circuit court level, but experts suggest there's no reason to do that when a less expensive, less contentious resolution may be possible. Working with a mediator is still a legal solution, but since it doesn’t require both sides to have attorneys arguing their case and filing all the documentation required for that, it's more cost effective. In fact, it may be a step the court asks you to do before going to trial.
Going to court
This should be the last resort, as it’s the most expensive and may still take a long time. As you strategize with your attorney, answer the final question from the top of this piece: How much time and money are you willing to spend? And after you answer, circle back to this one: Are you sure you’re unwilling to compromise? Before you once again answer no, consider the frameworks below:
Legal frameworks for resolution
The resolution of a boundary dispute is not always as cut and dried as pulling up records that say you, not the other party, is the owner of the land in dispute. There are various other outcomes that can come from a resolution:
Prescriptive easements give people (sometimes more than just the neighbor) permanent right to access certain land for a certain use. Say, for example, your neighbor’s been using your land as a pathway to a public beach -- and the court determines that the public deserves this pathway to public lands. There might be an easement that says all neighbors can use it as long as they don’t abuse the access.
Similar to easements, but this is a revocable right.
Original owners with a legitimate gripe that someone’s been encroaching on their land for years will hate this one. In places where it’s enforced, it means that a person who’s used land that they don’t own for a certain amount of years can actually legally claim it. There are arbitrators who specialize only in resolving adverse possession disputes.
Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs)
This outcome might be hard for both parties to swallow. It may be determined that neither party can do what they want with the land, because it’s actually owned or controlled by a homeowners association.
What’s the best-case scenario to a boundary dispute?
If you put aside emotions and entitled feelings, what’s the best outcome you can get from a boundary dispute? A clear title and full rights to the land in question. But what’s that really going to get you? If you’re trying to sell or develop and make a huge profit, then a protracted fight may be worthwhile. But if what’s driving this is just that you feel you deserve it, or always thought it was yours, or you don’t want to move a few hundred feet of fencing, then the ultimate best result might be that you both learn how to share the piece of property in dispute.