Adverse Possession: If You Pay Someone’s Property Taxes Do You Own the Property? Does paying property taxes give ownership? 

Q: My question is on adverse possession: If you pay someone’s property taxes, do you own the property?

I own five acres of land with two others. Two of us have paid all of the property taxes on the property for 30 years. Is it possible for the two owners who have paid the taxes to take ownership of the property? The third owner was deeded his share of the property about 30 years ago but has never paid anything. Now that owner has filed for the judicial sale of the land.

Does paying property taxes give us the rights of ownership? Do you have any advice for us?

Paying property taxes doesn’t automatically grant property ownership

A: We receive similar questions to yours from time to time and our answer is generally the same. You don’t automatically become the owner of a property simply because you paid the real estate taxes and maintenance costs.

You might have heard the term “adverse possession.” Adverse possession does allow you to become the owner of a property if you openly and notoriously make use of someone else’s land, you pay the real estate taxes on that land, and you use the land exclusively for at least 21 years. (In some situations, it may be less time depending on the laws of your state.)

Paying taxes is one piece of adverse possession

Here’s how it might work.

  1. First, you claim the property as your own.
  2. You don’t let others use the property — even the rightful owner. You must use the property exclusively.
  3. And, you do everything an owner would do with that property including maintaining it and paying the real estate taxes.

In this scenario, the rightful owner is likely nowhere to be found. They may have forgotten about the property. Or, they may have unknowingly inherited it. Or, they simply stopped looking after it because they couldn’t afford it. You step in and start using the property. You treat it as your own and even let everyone else know that it’s yours.

If you acknowledge the actual owner, you won’t meet the “adverse possession” test

In your case, we don’t think you meet the adverse possession test. First, you acknowledge the third owner’s right to the property. Next, while you make reference to that owner’s failure to pay expenses, you don’t assert that you used the property exclusively as your own. You don’t say, for example, whether you kept him from using or accessing the property. We bet that you reached out to him over the years requesting reimbursement for expenses. Even if you never got an answer back, reaching out means you were acknowledging that owner’s interest in the property.

Let’s say you find that you did have ownership of the property for the required period of time in your state (the number of years varies somewhat by state), and can claim adverse possession. You’d still need to go to court to prove your case and get sole ownership of the property.

It’s tough to prove adverse possession if you’re paying property taxes but not other costs

So, adverse possession is a real long shot. That said, there may be a way for you to get reimbursed for some or all of the money you and the other owner shelled out over the years.

From your letter, it looks like you and the other owner paid all the expenses for the property over 30 years. We don’t know if you lived there or rented it out. If you lived there and got the benefit of the use of the property, then it’s fair for you to pay for the real estate taxes and other maintenance expenses for the property.

Instead of adverse possession, try recouping costs in the sale

Assuming you and the other owner rented the home, did you share the rent with the third owner? Yes? Then you could have deducted his share of the maintenance and taxes from the income generated by the property. No? Then it’s fair for you two to pay those expenses (like repainting or replacing appliances) out of the rent generated.

When it comes to long term improvements to the property, those might fall into a different category. Say you put on a new roof, a new heating and cooling system, new bathrooms and a new kitchen in the last couple of years and now you sell the home. You can claim that you and the other owner should get reimbursed for the improvements you made to the home out of the sale proceeds.

And this line of thinking shows how you and the second owner might get reimbursed for your expenses over time.

What else did you pay besides property taxes? 

Let’s say that you and the second owner never rented the property and maybe never used it. You just paid the expenses for 30 years. We don’t think it’s fair that the third owner gets the benefit of the money you put into the home when the home is sold. You’d likely need to determine what you put into the home and how those improvements increased the value of the home so that on the sale of the home, you could get reimbursed for one-third share of the expenses over time and the second owner could get reimbursed for his one-third share.

If you and the second owner used the property exclusively for 30 years, and you were friendly with the third owner, then perhaps you’d share the profit equally. If there was a mortgage outstanding, then you’d share the profits after paying that off. Of course we understand that there may be other complicating factors involved that could change these parameters.

30 years of property taxes and other expenses can be repaid from sales proceeds

But it doesn’t sound like a friendly situation. The third owner wants to force the sale of the home by going to court. Given this situation, you’ll need to sit down with your attorney and figure out first whether you qualify for adverse possession. If you don’t, then you need to figure out how much money you and the second owner put into the home through the years. You also need to look at the value you received and decide what will make you whole. Then, you can propose a split with the third owner.

One final thought: If the property in question is vacant land and you never leased or received any benefit from owning the land, you have a good case to claim that the taxes you paid over all those years were your investment into the land and you are entitled to a return on that investment ahead of the owner that never put any money in. We hope the court would allow you to recover the money you put into the property along with a fair return on that money. Then, if there is a profit, dictate how to split that profit between the three of you.

Good luck and let us know what happens.

Read more about adverse possession

If I pay taxes on a property, do I own it?

Claiming Home Ownership Through Adverse Possession: What You Need to Know

When Your Parent Dies Without a Will, How Do You Claim Ownership of Their Property?

Responsibility of Maintaining Retaining Wall


©2023 by Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. A1602