A Primer for Adjacent Landowners & Their Lawyers

Something great about having been here awhile is that I can anoint myself qualified to give an opinion about things. All kinds of things. Some of them have nothing to do with law. Here’s one: Two adjacent owners disagree about the location of their common boundary. My client is one of the owners, and he appears in my office having received a demand letter written by a lawyer telling him how many ways he will be sued if he doesn’t get his driveway, fence, or irrigation system off his client’s land. Usually the letter includes no copy of a survey and no full explanation of just why he or she knows his client is right.

When the dispute gets started like this, the outcome is already likely to be bitter and unsatisfying. The very last thing anyone wants is a letter from his neighbor’s lawyer. That’s just the wrong way to start a discussion. This is where my non-legal legal opinion begins. If you are going to have an angry, I-hate-your-guts-dispute,don’t have it with your nextdoor neighbor. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, or even that you are likely to agree. You don’t have to like your neighbor or even talk to him. But don’t, if it can at all be avoided, fight, insult, or even get angry with your neighbor. If you think his fence is on your land, ask to see his survey. You ask, not your lawyer. Get your own survey and share it with your neighbor. If the surveyors disagree, ask them why, and try to learn what the differences are, if you can. If you get this far and learn that you and your neighbor cannot be civil, then the next letter can always come from your lawyer, or his.

One thing a lawyer will tell you early in a land dispute is that there are not likely to be any secrets. If you have a survey and you litigate, it will be produced in discovery and everyone will see it. Your neighbor’s survey will be available for you to see. Why play games?

If you have no survey, why would you assume you know where an adjacent land line is really located? Having been involved in such disputes has taught me that lawsuits normally cost far more than the value of the land being litigated, and that if the parties were told up front that the matter might cost $10,000 or moreto litigate (assuming there is no appeal), some disputes might get settled faster and without making forever enemies. If you simply must spend money, send your lawyer a check for $1,000, take your neighbor to dinner and celebrate saving $9,000.

My advice is this: If you must hate someone, pay your lawyer, and then you can hate him. Better yet, hate the other guy’s lawyer. If you must hate a neighbor, make it someone far down the street. Your next door neighbor is way too important.