Tips for Settling Land Disputes

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It can happen to the best of neighbors or even with an adjacent farm whose owner you’ve never met — a land dispute. You think a stand of trees is on your property. He believes it’s on his.

Land disputes can affect multiple actions. Perhaps your neighbor wants to plant on treed property you’ve thought for years was yours. He may even begin removing the trees! Neighbors may begin new construction on land they assume is theirs but actually belongs to the adjacent property.

Property disputes involve homes and yards, but don’t worry. There are many ways to settle land disputes. Most people are reasonable. In addition, there are ways to avoid or minimize the chances of a property dispute. Here are some tips for settling them.

Before a Dispute Arises

The best plan is to make sure you eliminate any circumstances that might lead to disputes later on. A few things to that may prevent future disputes include:

1. Have a Written Record of Your Property.

The easiest way to resolve a land dispute of any kind is to have a written record of your property. If it has been surveyed, the details of a surveyor’s map can be used. If has not been, the most prudent course is to have it surveyed before you buy. Determine ahead of time who should pay for it.

Have records with the boundaries and any identifying features of the boundaries clearly marked. This is especially prudent if no records exist, or if existing records are old and no longer reflect the property accurately.

2. Put Verbal Agreement in Writing.

Many boundary agreements in rural communities have traditionally been verbal — a buyer and seller’s word and a handshake. If that’s the case, the best course is to change a verbal agreement into a written one. Many older farmers and homesteaders may resist this, preferring traditional ways. But once one of the parties dies or moves, there is no proof a verbal agreement existed beyond the other party’s word.

Verbal agreements generally aren’t sufficient for a court and may not be considered in less formal methods of arbitration. An attorney can help you draw up papers that reflect existing verbal agreements.

3. Know Your Rights, Local Laws and Property Regulations.

Land disputes sometimes occur because certain rights do not belong to the purchaser of property but to someone else. Does your land have any gas, water, or mineral rights that might be owned by another party? Might there be easements that ensure another entity’s rights to your property?

Zoning is another consideration. Not all land is zoned for residential buildings, for example. Finally, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or even the U.S. Department of Agriculture may have certain rights on your property. Check zoning before any potential dispute, or before you want to make an improvement not allowed by rules or regulation.

Photo by Wjmummert (:wmc:File:Indy farmland.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What to Do If a Dispute Arises

Even when you’ve done all you can to prevent a possible dispute, disagreements can still occur. If you find yourself in the middle of one, know what to do.

1. Show Official Documents About Property Lines.

The first course of action in the event of a property dispute is to show the other party your official documents about where the property lines are. If you have a surveyor’s map or deed, that is fine. But documents that show ownership and property lines can also be found in a tax map, assessor’s map, deed description, subdivision map, or other documents. Official documentation should resolve any dispute.

2. Talk to Your Neighbor.

There are times, though, when a property dispute continues. There may be a genuine lack of clarity about where your property extends, or where it ends and your neighbor’s begins. Perhaps the documents you have are old and not reflected in newer documents issued to your neighbors. The other landowner may have an easement that gives some rights of access to your property.

If that happens, stay calm. Schedule a sit-down meeting, not an argument in the open. Present your case. Hear the neighbor’s case. See if a fair and suitable resolution can be reached.

3. Consult Outside Mediators/Attorneys.

Sometimes, talking a dispute over won’t work. Maybe work has been done before the dispute was even discussed. If that’s the case, consult an attorney. Attorneys can work as mediators in disputes so that all factors are considered in the resolution. Mediation may especially be helpful if there are multiple parties, such as the Federal government or states, in addition to the private parties.