Resolving a boundary dispute with your California neighbor

Determining a disputed boundary line involves complex law in California.

It is a dispute as old as the hills: where is that pesky boundary line between two pieces of real estate? Resolution of California boundary disputes can be surprisingly challenging and involve complex legal rules and concepts.

Many scenarios can lead to boundary-line confusion and here are some examples:

  • Property owners may believe and act as if a particular line is the correct boundary, even for decades and in reliance on family understanding, placement of boundary-encroaching buildings or previous owner representation, unknowingly in conflict with the boundary description in an official property document like a deed or title, or with a survey.
  • Property owners may mistakenly assume a fence, tree line, driveway or similar physical marker (called a monument) was correctly placed on the actual legal boundary.
  • The legal description of a parcel may include an internal inconsistency, mistake or confusing language, or be in conflict with the legal description of a neighboring plot.
  • The legal description of a lot may include reference to a physical monument like the shore of a lake, a creek, large tree, boulder or similar feature of the land and the monument or natural feature may have disappeared or shifted because of erosion, earthquake, the passage of time or similar reasons.

When a boundary-line dispute comes to light, it is smart for an involved property owner to consult with an experienced real estate attorney who has dealt before with boundary disputes. In California, the law that comes into play in a boundary dispute is extremely complex and is contained both in state statutes and state case law (judge-made or common law).

California boundary-dispute law dictates the types of evidence to consider in determining a true property line and the relative strength of various kinds of evidence. The property owner's lawyer can provide his or her opinion about such evidence and, when appropriate, will investigate and gather more, including conducting historical title and survey research, and ordering new professional surveys.

Survey evidence, especially when the surveyor relies on solid boundary indicators referenced in original land grants or plats from the government, even if very old, is considered important and solid in resolving modern boundary disputes.

It is usually better to resolve a boundary dispute rather than let it fester, especially if there is a property sale or transfer on the horizon. The problem will eventually need to be resolved, and it will likely be cheaper and less of a headache to do it sooner rather than later.

If possible, resolving a boundary dispute through negotiation between the adjoining owners is likely preferable to ending up in court for a judge to decide. At least with a negotiated agreement, each party has some input as to the outcome and court costs will probably be much lower. While the agreement will have to be approved in court in a quiet title action, a lengthy trial would be unnecessary.

However, if the parties cannot negotiate a boundary agreement, they may end up in court in a quiet title trial or other type of property action. Either way, it is imperative to obtain skilled legal counsel both for negotiation or litigation.

Keywords: dispute, boundary, California, real estate, boundary line, owner, survey, monument, legal description, attorney, evidence, quiet title, negotiation, litigation