Chaplin v. Sanders is without doubt the most important adverse possession case in Washington state.[1]

It is a case stacked high with facts supporting the claimants of adverse possession.[2] But, there was a legal snag which gave it legs for appeal to the Washington Supreme Court.

Essentially, there was a break in the chain of title which prevented a claim of constructive knowledge. The absence of this element drove an inquiry which completely changed the law.

All adverse possession cases which came before it must now be viewed through this case’s lense. And all cases which come after it are based at least in part on its holding.

That holding is that “subjective intent” is no longer an element to be considered when determining the validity of a claim for adverse possession.

What the heck does “subjective intent” mean?

Do you remember when [3] … you were young and “accidentally” hit your brother or sister. And you professed that you certainly didn’t “mean” – i.e. intend – for them to fall down to the ground bawling. Well, although you probably couldn’t name the (criminal) elements of battery, you intuitively knew that if you didn’t intend it – even though you did it – you couldn’t be held responsible for it.

You see, in criminal law one must both do whatever “it” – i.e. the crime –  is. The fancy pants name for this in law  is actus reus. AND, the “it” must be done with a certain level of intentionality. This second element is called mens rea.

Now prior to Chaplin v. Sanders, claimants of adverse possession essentially had to prove that they hadn’t intentionally sought to take the land away from the neighbor. But, instead of just saying that simply. The Washington Supreme Court realized that through a whole host of different cases, it had indicated this requirement in all different sorts of ways including: good faith, subjective intent, and color of title.

Looking at all the nuance and at times contradictions of all these past rulings along with the first piece of written advice offered 24 years earlier by an individual who in the intervening years became a recognized legal eagle, the court determined to go ahead and pitch any concerns as to whether a claimant  intended or didn’t intend to adversely possess their neighbors’ land.

The upshot is that adverse possession became easier to determine. As a matter of social policy this ought to be a good thing. That policy is that having a clean cut method of getting to a decision is more important than than what the decision is. The law allows a judge to break up the fight as soon as possible with a ruling at summary judgment. [4]

Unfortunately, the result of this holding is often that strident holders of record title will now consider anyone who claims adverse possession against their title to be “land thieves.” While this does occur at times, most commonly neither party knew there was a difference between title and ground truth until a survey was ordered.

But now, because there is no legal need for a claimant of adverse possession to disabuse their neighbor that they are not land thieves, the holder of record title may escalate the casting of the matter to one of moral terms. Lo and behold, soon this is the perception of the claimants of adverse possession too because they believe the law recognizes the land as theirs and as such it is the claimant of record title who is in the “wrong.”

Notably, there is one last bit about Chaplin v. Sanders which can not be ignored. It is this.

Holders of record title can defeat adverse possession claims if the use was permissive. Now let’s think about this for just a bit. How many neighbors go running to lawyers to craft some sort of letter of permission if they are going to allow their neighbor to use their land. Stepping back from that question, how many neighbors run to the surveyor to identify what is their land prior to a potential grant of permission which “ought” to be drafted by a lawyer.

Yes in certain rarefied echelons of wealthy society, one has chambermaids to wipe your tail too. But for the vast majority, it simply isn’t real world to expect people to go though all this hassle … if they even know that they should. Which in itself is highly unlikely … right?

Conversely, holders of record title who have been sleeping on their rights might find it awfully easy to claim after the fact that they had granted permission for property use to their neighbors. And when this happens, a fact question is introduced which will almost certainly prevent the judge to quickly dispose of the case at summary judgment … the whole policy reason for throwing out subjective intent in the first place. What a mess!

Now does this mess well serve anyone? Of course it does. It serves the litigators. But remember that aside from making money, litigators don’t have to deal with the aftermath.

So, is there a better way? For the life of my practice, I have been advocating for a quick determination of where the line will likely be drawn if done by a court. This ought to then allows the parties to quickly settle their dispute and hopefully not create or exacerbate interpersonal strain and conflict. Why?

Because in the vast majority of cases while the real property issues have some importance, it is the underlying interpersonal conflict which needs reconciliation … and no court can do that.

Bottom line, it’s better for neither neighbor to embark on a path for which it is unlikely that they will emerge victorious. And even if they do, that definition of victory better be vary clear in their head at the outset to allow them to clearly recognize its benefits and detriments … and see it to its endpoint.

If you want to find out whether you have a case and want to consider how might be the best way to proceed, please take a moment to complete our Initial Assessment [HERE]. [5]

[1] 100 Wn.2d 853, 676 P.2d 431 (1984). See [HERE].

[2] Claimants of Adverse Possession Sanders had: (1) cleared land; up to a (2) drainage ditch; beyond which were (3) bramble bushes. Later, they (4) installed a road; upon which (5) vehicles were parked; (6) garbage and (7) storage goods were placed. The claimed strip alos was regularly (8) mowed; planted with (9) flowers; (10) used for picnics and children’s play; and the placement of (11) over and underground electrical wiring.

[3] See https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/the-chris-farley-show-mccartney/2868143?snl=1.

[4] See explanation of Summary Judgment [HERE].

[5] Although Justice Smiles seeks to assist neighbor(s) to handicap their case and come quickly to peace, it is entirely possible that bellicose neighbor(s) will continue to be unreasonable and attempt to push their luck. To better understand how to sidestep that dynamic, I suggest people review the post: What Should I Know about my Neighbor in a Land Fight. See [HERE].