Adverse possession is a long-established legal doctrine concerning property rights. Based in common law dating back centuries, the doctrine essentially grants property ownership to trespassers (hence its informal moniker, “squatter’s rights.”) The doctrine is now limited by statute in most states, with little consistency between jurisdictions.
The Oregon Statute
Oregon law sets a high bar for those seeking to claim ownership through adverse possession. The statute sets out detailed requirements, which generally include:
- The person claiming ownership by adverse possession must have actually used the property as though it were their own. Depending on the type of land at issue, this use might vary. It might mean farming the land, fencing it in or improving upon it. Grazing livestock isn’t enough by itself, however, to constitute “actual use.”
- The use must have been “open and notorious,” meaning it wasn’t done sneakily or under the radar. To anyone looking on, it must have appeared that the possessor owned the property at issue.
- The possessor must have used the property continuously for at least 10 years.
- The possession must have been “hostile” (rather than permissive), meaning it was in opposition to the true owner’s interests.
- The possessor must have been honestly (and reasonably) mistaken in believing they owned the property. As a result, intentional adverse possession isn’t possible in Oregon.
Finally, in Oregon the possessor must prove each of the statutory elements by “clear and convincing evidence”—a high burden of proof that is more exacting than the usual “preponderance of the evidence” standard in civil cases.
An Owner’s Risk of Losing Property to Adverse Possession
Successful adverse possession claims aren’t an everyday occurrence. They are far rarer than typical boundary disputes between neighbors.
When these claims do come up, they often involve long-held property that hasn’t been properly surveyed in decades (if ever). A triggering event such as a proposed sale, an extensive remodel or another type of improvement may prompt an updated survey. If the results reveal a discrepancy between the property’s historical use versus the recorded ownership, an owner can face the risk of losing the property to adverse possession.
As with other property-related issues—especially those as nuanced as adverse possession—professional legal guidance is critical.