California real estate law: boundary disputes between neighbors

Unfortunately, sometimes a good relationship between adjoining neighbors goes sour when disagreement arises over the true boundary between their lands. A boundary dispute is as unique as the parcels and people involved but could involve a fence, wall, driveway, path or landscaping that everyone assumed was in the right place and questions are raised about whether it was placed consistently with the true legal borders.

When a land boundary becomes an issue, it is smart to consult with an experienced California real estate lawyer for advice. Also, it may be worth the money to hire a surveyor to conduct a survey. The surveyor will consult historical land records, the notes of previous surveyors, buried or fixed boundary monuments, and other important documentation of the boundary at issue.

Then, with the assistance of skilled legal counsel, the matter might be resolvable in negotiation, culminating in an agreement reached out of court; or a remedy may be possible through a title insurance claim. In some cases, boundary disputes do not justify the expense of a lawsuit.

Should informal resolution be unsuccessful, California law allows an action to quiet title in state court. Statistics on how many such suits are filed in the state are not easy to find but, in 2009, Jack I. Garvey, in the University of San Francisco Law Review, estimated that based upon court records, more than 3,000 such cases were being filed annually in California.

Within such a suit, both sides present evidence about the boundary and how the boundary has been treated historically by the parties. Often, expert witnesses in surveying may be called upon to testify.

Interestingly, while hearsay is usually not admissible in court, there is an exception in a boundary dispute case in which the person who made a statement that shed light on the boundary's history is dead or otherwise unavailable. Testimony about the statement of the absent person may be admissible as an exception to the hearsay rule as evidence in such an instance.

After hearing all of the evidence, the court may determine the location of the boundary and who owns what parts of the disputed area or may apply a legal rule or concept to determine the rights of the parties, such as:

  • Adverse possession
  • Boundary by agreement
  • Prescriptive or equitable easement
  • And more

But a review of literature and cases reveals that California courts in boundary disputes generally respect the professional findings of surveyors. Generally, if reliable evidence of the true, historical boundary exists through a valid survey, a California Judge prefers to set the boundary where the survey finds it should be, rather than grant access or title to disputed land through one of the above legal theories.

As one California court so eloquently put it in 2014, "the location of a disputed boundary line is proven by retracing, as nearly as possible based upon existing evidence, the footsteps of the original surveyor whose survey fixed the boundaries."

Any Californian facing a boundary dispute in Northern California should consult with a skilled real estate lawyer like one from David M. Sternberg & Associates in Walnut Creek.