It baffles most people when I tell them that it is possible to take claim of someone else’s land for free in South Carolina. By occupying and using another person’s land, eventually the inhabitant can legally claim the land as their own. Of course, the entire process is a bit more complicated than that, but the general idea is legitimate. The legal term for this practice is “Adverse Possession”. More colloquially, adverse possession is known as “Squatter’s Rights”, a phrase that more people are familiar with, but still may not understand fully. And who better than a Summerville Probate attorney to explain one of the more interesting aspects of South Carolina title law?

What are the Requirements for Claiming Adverse Possession in South Carolina?

While the idea of obtaining free real estate is undoubtedly appealing, there are quite a few requirements that must be met in order to claim land as your own. First, the inhabitant must continuously occupy the land for a certain period of time. In South Carolina, the dissiesor (a legal term for the occupant of the unowned property) must remain on the land for a minimum of 10 years. Additionally, use of the property by the dissiesor must be blatant to the property owner. If you were somehow able to live on another person’s property undetected for more than ten years, you would have a difficult time proving that you are the true owner. If the title holder is aware of your presence, however, and doesn’t ask you to leave, then you may have a claim to the property after ten years has passed. It is also important that the adverse possessor uses the land exclusively. If they cohabitate or share the land with the owner or with the public, there can be no claim for adverse possession. The use of the property must also be considered “hostile” toward the true owner. Hostile, in this case, refers to use that is against the interest of the title holder, although generally, living on someone’s land without their permission is enough to qualify.

How Can You Protect Yourself from Adverse Possession in South Carolina?

Now that you know the stipulations for a legal claim of adverse possession, perhaps you are beginning to see why it isn’t more common. There are quite a few hoops to jump through before the title is officially transferred. Of course, it makes sense to protect the interests of property owners before the interests of possessors, and there are quite a few laws that reflect this thought.

First and most obviously, the requirement of 10 years of continuous occupancy is daunting. The stipulation that habitation must be obvious to the property owner is another reason we don’t see more of these cases. Generally, it wouldn’t take long to realize that someone is using your property without your permission, and ten years is plenty of time to act to remove the unwanted party. And should you find someone attempting to inhabit your property without your permission, you are certainly within your rights to involve the police and have the trespasser removed.

Other laws that protect property owners exist and are relevant even if the owner isn’t aware of what adverse possession is. For example, if the parcel is divided into lots and someone decides to occupy one lot and not the others, they may only claim ownership of the single plot that has been inhabited. Similarly, by disallowing claims by inhabitants when permission has been granted by the landowner, the state also protects someone who is just trying to do the right thing by helping someone out. It’s nice to see that some laws are written to protect a kind-hearted person from being taken advantage of.  Even so, should you decide to allow someone to stay on your property, it is a good idea to draw up a contract that outlines the agreement and allows you to discontinue it at any time.

Color of Title and Additional Considerations

Despite the difficult prerequisites needed for an adverse possession claim, there are certainly cases where all conditions are met. In fact, there are ways that the occupant may actually increase the validity of their claim to the property. By improving the property, farming the land, or enclosing the property with a fence, the occupant strengthens their claim. Farming and enclosing the property are both highly visible to the landowner, essentially removing the title holder’s ability to assert that they were unaware of anyone’s presence on their land. Adding a fence to property that isn’t yours clearly qualifies as hostility toward the landowner.

Now, you may think that it’s crazy for someone to build a fence on property they know isn’t theirs, but oftentimes adverse possession isn’t done knowingly. Say that you purchase a nice piece of land, build a house on it, and live there for 10+ years. After all that time, you find out that the deed to the land you purchased wasn’t valid and that other parties still have a claim to the property as well. Under adverse possession laws, you may be able to solidify your ownership and extinguish all other claims. Legally, we refer to this as “color of title”.

Perhaps the most confusing stipulation is that property taken by force is unable to be claimed via adverse possession. Although there is certainly a reason for this law, it seems clearly contradictory that anyone taking property by force would need to wait ten years to claim ownership. Isn’t that the point of using force in the first place?

Adverse Possession on a Smaller Scale

The idea of someone biding their time in order to take possession of someone else’s land is interesting, to say the least, but it is much more common that adverse possession takes place on a smaller scale. Let’s pretend that you want to pave a new driveway on your property. Let’s pretend that you also (intentionally or not) positioned the driveway so that half was on your property and half was on your neighbor’s. If the driveway isn’t demolished and the installation isn’t disputed after 10 years, you now own the property under the paved portion of the driveway. This is true for similar structures like sidewalks, patios, and fenced in areas as well, and despite the smaller scale of these situations, the same conditions that we discussed for earlier scenarios still apply.

Thank you so much for reading! We could delve further into adverse possession law, but there is too much information to cover in one blog. If you are currently involved in a property dispute or are looking for a probate and estate attorney in Summerville, SC, give Watts Law Firm a call today to schedule a consultation.