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You wake up one morning to the sound of a lawn mower running just outside your window and discover that your neighbor is mowing your lawn. Should your response be: a.) thank your neighbor for this random act of kindness; b.) offer to pay your neighbor for the friendly service; c.) drive your neighbor off with a willow switch; or d.) none of the above? The answer depends on the relationship that you want to have with the neighbor.
Rarely does a month pass without a telephone call to our office about a neighbor building a fence or parking a car on someone else’s property. The caller usually asks, “How can I make them stop?”
Boundary line disputes can be the nastiest conflicts, second only to child custody battles. Many property owners have spent thousands of dollars haggling over a few feet or even inches of real estate. Legions of property owners have forgotten the biblical commandment: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Courts made rules to resolve boundary disputes more than a century ago. The science of settling boundaries in Abraham Lincoln’s day was less precise than the global positioning satellite systems that high tech surveyors use sometimes today. When Abraham Lincoln’s father carved his mark with an ax in the trees surrounding his property, nobody worried very much about the precise location of boundaries. Conflicts arose when the Lincoln neighborhood became more crowded and visible boundary landmarks differed from the written descriptions of real estate contained in deeds. The courts settled fights between neighbors with a rule commonly called “adverse possession.”
Courts often follow the adverse possession rule by honoring the long-standing usage of property, regardless of what a deed says about the property ownership. For example, imagine a deed that describes a piece of property as a rectangle that is 100 feet long and 60 feet wide. Imagine that the boundary lines begin at a railroad spike driven into the center of the street, and run around the edges of the rectangle until they end back at the railroad spike. Imagine further that a neighbor built a fence on the back 10 feet and planted a garden there 10 years ago without permission from the true landowner.
A court will disregard the true landowner’s deed if the judge believes that the neighbor paid property taxes and maintained the fence and garden openly where everyone could see them, without the opposing owner’s permission or interference, every day for more than a decade. It is not necessary for the neighbor to have actually paid the taxes if the judge decides that it was reasonable for the neighbor to believe that he was the taxpaying owner of the property throughout the disputed land.
Boundary line lawsuits require many expensive hours of legal analysis and preparation. A piece of property is rarely worth the money that people spend fighting over it. Therefore, neighbors should spend more time and money trying to get along with each other than arguing over a piece of property.
A careful landowner marks the boundary lines clearly and visibly, and discusses a boundary intrusion with an intruder as soon as an intrusion occurs. If a neighbor builds a fence, driveway, or otherwise treats your property as his or her own, you should speak with the neighbor in a friendly fashion and discuss the location of the boundaries.
Some neighbors simply cannot agree. If the neighbor ignores the confrontation, you must decide whether to enrage the neighbor with a lawsuit or give up the invaded portion of your property forever. If you want to defend your property, you will need to hire a lawyer with experience in boundary disputes. If you ignore a neighbor’s intrusion long enough, ancient boundary laws may re-write the boundaries of your property and reward your inconsiderate neighbor for his intrusion.
Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers and Jeff is a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. 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 and the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.