Adverse Possession

How Adverse Possession Laws 

Adverse Possession is a concept that allows a trespasser—sometimes a stranger but more often a neighbor—to gain legal right to use or title over the land of the property owner.

 Archaic though its legal roots might be, the law's continued utility is to achieve a fair result 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 the trespasser leave would actually create hardship.

Adverse possession in Iowa is controlled by statute (laws passed by the state legislature), but also by the state courts.

Importantly, the burden of proof to establish a claim of adverse possession is on the trespasser. The legal holder of title has the presumption of ownership until the adverse possessor can meet that burden. In other words, it is entirely the trespasser's job to prove that the judge should give him or her ownership over the land. Just making the claim and hoping the other side won't do a good enough job defending against it is not likely to win the day.

Iowa's Requirements for Adverse Possession

There is no single statute in Iowa that articulates the elements that a trespasser must establish to prove adverse possession. Rather, the courts have established a variety of such factors, over many decades.

As in most states, adverse possession in Iowa 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:

  • hostile (against the right of the true owner and without permission)
  • actual (exercising control over the property)
  • exclusive (in the possession of the trespasser alone)
  • open and notorious (using the property as the real owner would, without hiding his or her occupancy), and
  • continuous for the period set by state statute (which is ten years in Iowa, under  Iowa Code 560 et seq.).

Trespasser's Intent Is Irrelevant in Iowa

Some states care whether the trespasser  knew  that he or she was trespassing. Iowa does not. The doctrine of adverse possession protects one who has honestly entered and held possession in the belief that the land is his or her own, as well as one who knowingly appropriates the land of others for the specific purpose of acquiring title.

In other words, in Iowa, there is no requirement that the entry and continued possession of the property be done with knowing or intentional hostility.

Rather, any entry and possession for the required ten years that is exclusive, continuous, hostile, actual, and open—even if under a mistaken claim of title—is sufficient to support a claim of title by adverse possession. In our example above, it doesn't matter whether Brian built the shed  knowing  that he was on Molly's land, or whether he built it mistakenly thinking it was on his own land. His intent has no bearing on his eventual claim for title under adverse possession.

An Action to Quiet Title 

Chances are, it's an innocent mistake on the person's part. Given that, your first step should be to nicely ask the trespasser to move. More often than not, the person will comply.

If the trespasser does not comply, you may be forced to consult a lawyer and bring an action to quiet title—a legal method for determining who holds title to land. In an action to quiet title, you're asking an Iowa state court judge to issue an order declaring that you, and not the trespasser, are the true owner of the land.

A quiet title order is particularly helpful if you are intending to sell your property, and will need to reassure potential buyers about its boundaries and rightful ownership.

No Claims Against Government Land

Land held by Iowa state and municipal government entities are generally immune from adverse possession actions. In other words, title to public lands generally can't be acquired by adverse possession as against the State. So, if you live next to an unused state park you won't be able to expand your backyard merely by mowing the lawn or building a shed and waiting ten years. The state of Iowa will still “own” that land.

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