Family Compound Denies Claim of Exclusive Possession

June 24, 2012 | Erika Eckley


Adverse possession requires open, hostile, actual, exclusive and continuous possession of property under a claim of title for at least ten years. The burden is on the party seeking to establish title through adverse possession to establish this possession by clear proof.

In this case, two brothers had a dispute regarding family property. Jack purchased and acquired title to a nineteen-acre parcel of which he and his father had lived on a four-acre portion without legal right for many years. John, Jack’s brother, owned a 4.5 acre parcel adjacent to the property known as Lot A. Jack had originally owned Lot A, but deeded it to his father during Jack’s divorce from his first wife. John and his father owned Lot A as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. When the father died, John owned Lot A. John rented Lot A to Jack who lived in a mobile home on Lot A with his second wife. [It is not known why he could not place his mobile home on his own nineteen-acre parcel.]

Lot A was landlocked and could only be accessed through a driveway across the disputed four-acre portion of the nineteen-acre parcel. In 2009, John refused to rent Lot A to Jack and placed concrete barricades across the driveway barring access to Lot A. John also erected a fence south of the driveway preventing Jack from accessing his cattle in the area as well. Jack brought suit against John to establish that he had no right of possession to the four acres. John filed a counterclaim against Jack asserting ownership of the four-acre portion of the nineteen-acre property acquired through adverse possession. 

Following trial, the trial court found that Jack and his wife were the owners of the nineteen-acre parcel, and the entire family had used the land since 1981. Because the entire family used the parcel, John’s adverse possession claim failed for lack of exclusive use for ten years. The court also found an easement by acquiescence across Jack’s property to Lot A in favor of John as owner of Lot A. Damages were also awarded to Jack for the cost of creating another entrance to the nineteen-acre parcel to access his livestock. John appealed.

John asserted the trial court erred by requiring he prove exclusive use of the property rather than exclusive possession. The appellate court disagreed because the evidence showed that the portion of land was used routinely by other family members. Members entered the disputed property for recreational purposes, and Jack cut and sold timber from the property as part of his income. John also never told any family member to leave the property until the day he placed the concrete blocks in the driveway. John’s testimony also revealed that he asked permission from Jack to erect a fence to graze his sheep and that he believed the land was a “family compound” which required no permission for family members to use.

John then claimed the court erred by considering only whether he had a “claim of right” rather than a “color of title” to the property pursuant to Iowa Code § 560.2. The court stated that § 560.2 was inapplicable to adverse possession claims and pointed out that the trial court relied exclusively on whether there was exclusive use, so there was no finding anywhere in the opinion referencing color of title. Because the issue was not part of the court’s holding, there could be no error by the trial court in failing to consider § 560.2 as a definition of color of title.

John’s final argument was that the trial court used the wrong period of time for considering the ten-year statute of limitations for establishing adverse possession because the family had squatted on the property as far back as 1984. The court reminded John, however, that the ten-year period does not begin to run until exclusive possession is acquired. In this case, exclusive possession did not occur until John placed the barricades across the driveway only one month before Jack brought suit to have the court determine John had no right of possession to the disputed property. As such, there was no exclusive possession for at least ten years, and the trial court opinion was affirmed. Crowley v. Crowley, No. 2-193/11-0201, 2012 Iowa App. LEXIS 438 (Iowa Ct. App. Jun. 13, 2012).