Keeping an eye on all of your stuff

One of the many useful lessons my dad taught me growing up was to maintain your equipment. He did a lot of home improvement projects, and no matter how long and exhausting the day had been, before finishing he always took care of his tools. Paintbrushes would be cleaned and put in turpentine to soak, work areas would be cleaned up, and tools would be put away (“a place for everything, and everything in its place,” he would say).

This lesson was further instilled in me by some fine gentlemen at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, who were quite concerned that I clean my rifle, among other items, before going to bed.

I was thinking about this recently while reading the weekly Alaska Supreme Court decisions. There was a case involving a real estate doctrine called “adverse possession”. The doctrine says that in certain circumstances, one person can claim rights to another person's land if they used it as their own for at least 10 years.

The case came out of South Anchorage. There was a platted lot line in a subdivision, and the fence between the two properties. However the fence was not quite in the right spot; it started at the right place in the front of the lots, but went at the wrong angle from there, so that by the time it got to the back of the lot it was quite a few feet off the lot line.

For almost 20 years nobody noticed that a triangular portion of the second lot was on the wrong side of the fence. Each of the neighbors maintained their side of the fence as if that was where the lot line was. When the error was finally discovered, the neighbors whose property was on the wrong side of the fence sued. The other owner, who had been maintaining this triangle on her side of the fence for all those years, countersued for adverse possession.

And she won. When there is an honest mistake and an adjacent property owner is using a portion of your property as if it was their own, after 10 years they can claim a right to that part of the property.

(Before moving on, I will note that the law of adverse possession is somewhat complex and has a number of required elements, so don't rely on this article for legal advice. You do read the little disclaimer at the end of this article each month, right? I usually try to insert a little bon mot at the end to try to get you to read the disclaimer. Anyway, back to my main point).

I am willing to bet that part of the problem is that the neighboring lot—the one that was losing a part of the yard to the encroaching property—was a vacant lot. Oftentimes people do not keep a close eye on vacant properties. That is especially true with remote properties. I often have clients who own an undeveloped parcel somewhere out in the boonies, who tell me they have not been there in decades. And I tell them to get out there and take a look at it.

Because aside from the possibility that someone is encroaching on their property, there also may be a dangerous situation. If somebody leaves an abandoned vehicle, or refrigerator, or just a lot of stuff with sharp edges, and someone else ends up getting hurt, potentially the injured person could sue the property owner. And most people don’t bother to carry liability insurance on vacant properties.

So you need to keep an eye on your assets. And not only your real estate.

I attended a presentation a few years back by a security expert from a bank. After going through some of the latest tricks that people were using to steal money, he told us that we should be checking our account statements online at least every other day. When someone in the audience asked if that wasn't an awful lot to expect people to do, he simply said “it's your money”.

Financial planners sometimes say, “take care of your assets, and someday they'll take care of you”. Well put.

Now drop and give me 20.

Kenneth Kirk is an Anchorage estate planning lawyer. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for a specific situation; for specific advice you should consult a professional who can take all the facts into account. Now to avoid being a hypocrite, I guess I have to go clean my keyboard.

 
 
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