There's a popular myth about a trespasser who pays delinquent taxes on someone else's property and then becomes the owner. Even the reliable Nolo website begins an article on the subject with this teaser: "A trespasser can sometimes gain legal ownership of land just by occupying it. Here's how." If you're a property owner, it's a scary myth, and if you're attracted to the idea of getting something for nothing, it's appealing. But it's largely just a myth; the reality is substantially different.
Paying Back Taxes on Others' Property
You can always pay someone else's property taxes, whether they're back taxes or current. There's no law against it, and some homeowners might encourage it because, except in the most unusual circumstances, there's no benefit to you for paying them. They're not even deductible expenses because, at the time you pay them, you're not -- and may never be -- the owner, and only the owner can claim a tax payment as an expense.
Becoming the Owner
Most states have a law, usually identified as "the law of adverse possession," giving someone the right to pay taxes on tax-delinquent property and, eventually, become the legal owner. The qualifying requirements, however, are exacting and often misunderstood. First, the taxes must be delinquent and, if you're the person trying to make the claim, you must be the only person paying them. If the owner pays the property tax even once before you've perfected your claim, the payment puts your right in doubt. A commentary on the law in Florida notes that for this reason, if you're the legal owner, it's always a good idea to keep your tax records for seven years, in case you need to show a judge you've paid them.
The California law requires that to qualify, the person occupying the property must do so openly, alone and continuously for five years without objection from the owner. Trips to the grocery store are undoubtedly fine, but a long vacation will likely restart the five-year clock. Other states have slightly different requirements, but all specify long periods of unopposed, open and continuous occupancy. In Texas, for example, occupancy for purposes of adverse possession must extend a minimum of five years, and under some circumstances, requires 10 years of continuous occupancy.
You can't just move onto unoccupied property and assume title. In most states, as in Florida, you have to file a legitimate title claim or, under adverse possession, continuously occupy the property -- the statutory period in Florida is seven years -- and be able to show that you've improved the property during your occupancy. As Nolo Press and Gardinelli Law Group articles point out, the more mundane reality of adverse possession claims is that they usually have to do with a fence or the side of someone's garage being over the property line. If unopposed, after a certain number of years, the trespass can become a right, and the garage or the fence can stay where it is. But no one gets to take over your house.
- Accountant Forums: Paying Someone Else's Deductible Expense
- GiardinelliLawGroup: New California Law Raises Bar on Establishing Ownership Through Adverse Possession
- Polk County: Adverse Possession
- LoneStarLandLaw: Adverse Possession in Texas
- Nolo Press: Adverse Possession -- When Trespassers Become Property Owners
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images