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Three of the most emotionally volatile kinds of legal conflicts that people can encounter are child custody battles, family disputes over a deceased person’s assets, and arguments between neighbors over property boundary lines. Disputes over children and estate assets often stir intense emotion, but the intensity fades once a court enters judgment on the contested issues. By contrast, some boundary disputes rage for generations, and nations have fought wars over slim strips of land along their borders. Fortunately, most boundary disputes are easier to avoid than family conflicts.

Americans divide land into various geometric shapes when property owners sell or give parts of their land to other people, their families divide the land after the property owners die, or a federal, state, or local government entity acquires land from the property owners. In an ideal case, someone will hire a reputable surveyor to locate and mark the boundaries of the land, and then locate and mark new boundaries of parts of the land that the property owner is dividing for sale or other transfer to new property owners. Of course, the fact that boundary disputes exist in almost every city and town in the nation tells us that property owners do not always do what is ideal.

Several factors can lead to boundary disputes. In densely wooded areas or places with rough terrain (such as areas that have been transformed by mining activities) old survey markers can be hard to find and old survey records may be too sketchy to calculate boundary locations with mathematical precision. Rivers and streams change courses over time and sometimes disrupt boundaries that use those waterways as fixed landmarks. It may surprise people to know that some streets, alleys, and county roads shift locations when maintenance crews repair or replace them without maintaining the original road widths carefully. People sometimes disrupt boundaries accidentally by uprooting survey markers, such as when a farmer bulldozers through a corner point while clearing an old fencerow. Perhaps the most common and avoidable boundary problem occurs when someone builds or installs a permanent landmark, such as a driveway, a row of trees, a garage, or a fence on a neighbor’s property.

A real estate buyer can avoid a boundary dispute nightmare by verifying property lines and corner points before making a purchase offer. If a surveyor has marked the property boundaries, the survey markers should be detectable with a metal detector if they are not visible on the surface. If a buyer cannot find the survey markers, it may be worthwhile to speak with the neighboring property owners to ensure that they agree with the seller about the location of the property lines and property corners. If neighbors agree with the boundaries, they should also be willing to install clear corner point markers and sign a boundary location agreement that refers to those markers, so that the parties and the property owners that owned the real estate after them can enforce the agreement against neighboring property owners.

It costs precious time and money to install or construct driveway, fence, building, or other significant landmark. If a property owner builds such a landmark in a city that has zoning restrictions, the city may order the property owner to remove the landmark if it is located too close to the boundary lines. Even in communities without zoning ordinances, if you build a landmark across your neighbor’s property line, the neighbor can force you to remove the landmark. Therefore, if it is not possible to visually verify well-established boundary markers before beginning the installation or construction, a property owner should hire a surveyor to set boundary markers and mark the location of the proposed landmark on the survey to ensure that the landmark does not encroach upon the neighbor’s property.

A careful and responsible property owner can still end up with a boundary dispute if a neighbor treats the property boundary irresponsibly. Therefore, it is always wise for a property owner to meet a new neighbor and point out the boundary lines before the new neighbor begins building landmarks. Otherwise, it is possible for a sloppy or aggressive neighbor to claim ownership of part of your property under an ancient legal doctrine known as “adverse possession.” Multiple requirements of adverse possession law must exist before the rule changes property ownership, but a simple rule of thumb is that you risk forfeiting ownership of part of your land if you do not dispute a neighbor’s encroaching landmark in court within 10 years after the landmark’s installation or construction.

If you are wondering why the boundary line is such a big deal, you should realize that initial attorney fees and survey fees in a simple boundary dispute could exceed a total of $10,000 very quickly. If you build a garage or swimming pool on your neighbor’s property, you may also have to remove it. Finally, if you allow your neighbor to build something on your property, adverse possession may force you to live with it for as long as you own your property. We think those are pretty big deals.

Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers and active members of the Indiana State Bar Association and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Both lawyers are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois. Jeff is also a registered civil mediator, a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the Indiana Bar Foundation;  a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Indiana Association of Mediators; and he was the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.

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