OLYMPIA – A bill that modernizes Washington’s land laws and protects the rights of property owners was signed into law this week by the governor. Sponsored by Rep. Christine Rolfes, the measure updates the land law statute dealing with adverse possession, put into place more than 100 years ago to help settle boundary disputes between neighbors.
“Adverse possession is a basic, bedrock principle of land law, intended to help solve unintentional property boundary disputes—things like a driveway or a fence slightly out of place,” said Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. “But it is increasingly abused by people who purposefully encroach on others’ land hoping one day to take control of it. This bill puts the brakes on that and protects rightful property owners.”
Under adverse possession, people who keep an area of land for at least 10 uninterrupted years in an open manner with no rights to it can then claim ownership, with no compensation required. Designed to help settle basic boundary line disputes, adverse possession has been abused, says Rolfes. Some people are known to purposefully trespass in order to lay claim eventually to property that is not rightfully theirs, resulting in land theft.
Rolfes worked closely with the legal community and property-rights advocates to craft a solution that she says is fair and protects the spirit of Washington’s land laws.
Under the updated law, the prevailing party in the case of an adverse possession claim must pay the property’s back taxes. Previously the prevailing party would face no financial costs whatsoever. The updated law also allows a court to award equitable and just legal costs and attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party. Bill proponents say adverse possession claims are costly to defend in court, sometimes devastating the property’s title holder and essentially forcing a settlement with the claimant.
“Nobody should be bullied into giving up land that’s rightfully theirs. This is about fairness,” said Rolfes.
The bipartisan bill passed nearly unanimously in the House and Senate. More information about House Bill 1026 is available here.