What is adverse possession?

Adverse possession is a little-known legal concept that allows someone to acquire valid ownership of real estate by using or inhabiting the property for a certain time.

There are two main ways an individual may use adverse possession to stake a real estate claim: open possession and color of title.

Open possession

To make a successful adverse possession claim via open possession, an individual must have actual possession of, or exercise actual control over, the property in question. That possession or control must also:

  • Be open and notorious, meaning that the individual did not try to hide the possession.
  • Last continuously for seven years (20 years in some situations).
  • Be hostile, meaning that the individual is not the rightful owner and does not have the owner’s permission.
  • Be exclusive, meaning that the individual did not share possession or control with the rightful owner or with anyone else.

Color of title

An adverse possession claim via color of title is the result of improper paperwork. It occurs when a legally filed property record incorrectly names the claimant as the property owner. If no one objects to the incorrect record within seven years, the claimant’s ownership becomes valid. In addition, if a person pays all the property taxes on a parcel for 20 years and no one objects during that time, that person may validly claim ownership through color of title.

Many people question whether adverse possession should continue to be a legal process. After all, the doctrine allows a determined trespasser to eventually take ownership rights away from the lawful owner. Like it or not, adverse possession is still the law in Tennessee.