Key point 7-18. Churches can lose a portion of their property to a neighboring landowner as a result of “adverse possession,” if the neighbor openly and adversely occupies church property for the length of time prescribed by state law.
A Connecticut court ruled that a church lost property it owned as a result of adverse possession.
Since 1997, a family (the “plaintiffs”) maintained a property in Connecticut that a church believed it owned. The plaintiffs performed all routine maintenance and landscaping, provided upgrades, and paid all property taxes and insurance. The plaintiffs also rented out the property to different parties at various times and collected the rent.
The types of maintenance, repairs, upgrades, and landscaping performed by the plaintiffs was extensive. They made improvements to the siding, windows, and electric system; drilled a new well; replaced a shower enclosure; replaced the roof twice; paved the driveway; replaced the oven and range; replaced flooring; replaced the furnace; remodeled the kitchen; and installed a new septic system.
Proving adverse possession
Based on the evidence list above, a court ruled that the church lost ownership of the property due to adverse possession. The court explained:
The law of adverse possession is well-established. [Connecticut law] establishes a fifteen-year statute of repose on an action to oust an adverse possessor. “The essential elements of adverse possession are that the owner shall be ousted from possession and kept out uninterruptedly for fifteen years under a claim of right by an open, visible and exclusive possession of the claimant without license or consent of the owner.”
“The legal significance of the open and visible element [of adverse possession] . . . requires a [court] to examine the extent and visibility of the claimant’s use of the . . . property so as to determine whether a reasonable owner would believe that the claimant was using that property as his or her own. In general, exclusive possession can be established by acts . . . as would ordinarily be exercised by an owner in appropriating the land to his own use and the exclusion of others. Thus, the claimant’s possession need only be a type of possession which would characterize an owner’s use. It is sufficient if the acts of ownership are of such a character as to openly and publicly indicate an assumed control or use such as is consistent with the character of the premises in question.”
“It is true . . . that it is not essential to the establishment of title by adverse user that a claim of ownership be made; title may be acquired even though the possessor knows that he is occupying wholly without right; all that is necessary to prove is that there was a user as of right, that is, one in disregard of any rights of the holder of the legal title.” . . . “Hostile occupancy implies lack of consent[.] . . . As a general proposition, to satisfy the hostility requirement of adverse possession, a claimant’s possession of the disputed land, from its inception, must be without permission, license or consent of the owner and must continue to be so throughout the required fifteen year period.”
The court noted that one of the plaintiffs provided an affidavit setting forth facts to establish each of the elements of adverse possession:
[The plaintiff] swore to over 24 years of exclusive use of the property together with a very explicit list of work at the property to demonstrate exclusive use. This use was of the sort that would have [been] ordinarily performed by an owner and would have been open and obvious to anyone looking at the property.
Additionally, the church did not present any evidence refuting what the plaintiffs stated.
The court concluded that the plaintiffs “have presented evidence which clearly and positively proves all of the elements of adverse possession.” It found in favor of the plaintiffs, determining them to be “the rightful owners of the property by virtue of the doctrine of adverse possession.”
What this means for churches
This case illustrates an important point. Churches may lose title and ownership of some—or even all—of their property by adverse possession if another party uses the church’s property openly and in defiance of the church’s interest.
In many cases, a church loses ownership of property through adverse possession because it fails to object to another’s substantial use of its property. This often will include maintaining the property (i.e., mowing the yard, shoveling snow, erecting a fence, and so on), making repairs to the property, paying for insurance, and paying taxes.
Note that the adverse use must be for a period of time specified by state law. This can be as few as 5 years, but it is more commonly 10, 15, or 20 years.
Freedman v. Teachers Coll., Colum. Univ., 2021 WL 6551965 (Conn. App. 2021)