Pursuant to New Jersey law, the short answer to this question is yes. Depending on the circumstances, your neighbor may be able to claim title to a portion of your property. This doctrine is called adverse possession.
Under the doctrine of adverse possession, a person who openly, notoriously, continuously and exclusively utilizes another person’s property for a certain period of time may file a cause of action with the Superior Court in the county in which the property is located seeking a declaration from the court that they are the properly titled owner to such property. The basis of such a claim under New Jersey law is the failure of the true property owner to file an action for ejectment of the “adverse possessor” within the period of time designated by statute.
Typically, these cases arise when a landowner’s fence encroaches onto their neighbor’s property or when one landowner builds and continuously uses a structure (such as a driveway, walkway, etc.) which is situated either totally or partially on the neighbor’s property. The requirement that the use of the land be open and notorious is to give the rightful landowner the opportunity become aware of the improper use and take action to correct it. Thus, where a fence or driveway only encroach upon the neighbor’s property by an inch or two, such an encroachment may not be considered “open and notorious” because such a minor encroachment would not put a reasonable landowner on notice that its property is being encumbered. Other factors which relate to the “open and notorious” requirement include whether or not the adverse possessor consistently acted as if it were the owner of the land in question.
The present statutory timeframe for which the adverse possessor must “occupy” the subject property in order to achieve adverse possession is generally 30 years for developed land and 60 years for undeveloped land. As indicated above, such possession of another’s property must be “continuous and exclusive” for these statutory periods. Thus, any attempt by the rightful landowner to exert control over the subject property or any abandonment by the adverse possessor during the applicable time frame will generally defeat a claim for adverse possession. It should be noted, however, that the applicable time frame may be satisfied by the “adverse possession” of more than one titled owner. Thus, if four successive owners openly, notoriously, continuously, and exclusively use their neighbor’s land for the applicable time frame, the last titled owner may seek adverse possession based on the time accrued by three prior owners’ adverse use. This is called “tacking.”
What does all of this mean in practical terms? Basically, if you own real property, you should regularly check your property boundaries to ensure that none of your neighbors are improperly asserting any type of control over it. If you believe one of your neighbors is doing so, we would suggest seeking legal advice as soon as possible and potentially obtaining a survey to determine the nature and extent of the encroachment or use. Similarly, when you purchase a home, you should go over the survey with the surveyor in order to determine whether or not any of your neighbors’ fences or improvements (driveways, etc.) do not exist within your property lines. If such condition exists, you should immediately discuss this issue with the attorney who is representing you in that real estate transaction so that your rights may be fully protected.
The bottom line is that, in the event you believe any of these issues potentially affect you, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible given the legal nuances involved.