Couple Acquires Property through Adverse Possession

August 21, 2017 | Kristine A. Tidgren

The Iowa Court of Appeals recently affirmed a Winterset couple's right to ownership of an asphalt driveway and two carports through adverse possession. The case presents a good overview of this powerful, yet sometimes-forgotten legal doctrine.

The doctrine of adverse possession provides that sometimes a trespasser can become a rightful owner. This often arises when there is an honest mistake regarding a boundary line and mistaken possession continues for more than 10 years (in Iowa). That’s exactly what happened in Summit Veterinary Services v. Tindle.

A chiropractor and his wife purchased their home in 1977. They operated a chiropractic clinic on the same property. The couple’s property was just west of a veterinary clinic, which was built in 1979. Both sets of owners accessed their properties by way of a driveway, which ran parallel to an east-west road to the north of both properties. The couple paved the driveway with asphalt, and the first owners of the veterinary clinic build a fence that ran along the south side of the driveway in 1979. The chiropractor assisted with the fence construction and maintained it through the years. From the time they bought their property, the couple claimed the section of property to the north of the fence as their own, eventually constructing two carports on the property, one in 2002 and another in 2006. The couple had also displayed used cars for sale by parking them on the north side of the driveway since 2002.

In 2015, a new owner acquired the veterinary clinic, conducted a survey, and realized that the asphalt driveway and carports were located on property it legally owned.  The new owner immediately filed a petition seeking to quiet title to that property in its favor. The couple filed a counterclaim, alleging that they had acquired rightful title to the property via adverse possession.

The trial court ruled in favor of the couple, and the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed.

To prevail on a claim for adverse possession of property in Iowa, the party must show hostile, open, exclusive, and continuous possession of that property under claim of right or color of title for a period of at least 10 years. “Hostile” does not mean that the possession is with ill-intent or that the possessor is acting in bad faith, but that the possession is adverse (or contrary) to the actual title. In other words, the person is possessing property that he or she does not legally own (as shown by a survey). Adverse possession must be established by clear and convincing evidence. Here, the couple established their claim by showing that they had exclusively possessed, maintained, and cared for the disputed property since 1979.

The court first looked to Iowa Supreme Court to explain what is meant by “claim of right,” perhaps the least understood requirement in establishing adverse possession:

The actual occupation, use, and improvement of the premises by the claimant, as if her were in fact the owner thereof, without payment of rent or recognition of title in another or disavowal of title in himself, will be sufficient to raise a presumption of his entry and holding as absolute owner, and unless rebutted, will establish the fact of a claim of right (quoting from I-80 Assocs., Inc. v. Chi., Rock Island & Pac. R.R. Co., 224 N.W.2d 8, 11 (Iowa 1974)).

The court found that the couple’s mistaken belief that they owned the land did not defeat their claim for adverse possession, but rather showed necessary good faith in claiming a right to the land. The court also found that even though one of the carports was built less than 10 years before trial, the couple had shown the necessary time period for establishing adverse possession to the entire parcel. The construction of the second carport on the disputed property merely continued the couple’s longstanding possession of the property. The evidence had established that the couple had maintained, possessed, and cared for the entire portion of the disputed property since at least 1979 when the prior owner of the veterinary clinic erected the fence to divide the properties.

The doctrine of adverse possession can surprise landowners. It is, however, grounded in public policy intended to prevent surprise. The idea is that consistent, productive use of land should be encouraged and that property owners should not sleep on their rights. 

The best way to prevent such a surprise is to survey property before a purchase, not after.

The case is Summit Veterinary Services, LLC v. Tindle, No. 16-2077 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 16, 2017).