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Pennsylvania Updates Legislation on Adverse Possession as of June 19, 2019

By: John F. Lushis, Jr.

Pennsylvania, like many states, has laws relating to adverse possession.

What is adverse possession?

Adverse possession is a method of acquiring title to real property by possession for a specified period under certain prescribed conditions. Historically, to acquire title by adverse possession in Pennsylvania, a party must have actual, continuous, exclusive, visible, notorious, and hostile possession of the property after a minimum of 21 years. While these words come across as heavily “legal” and perhaps complicated, these core elements of adverse possession are pretty straightforward.

Actual possession occurs when a trespasser is on and using property owned by another. “Continuous” means that the trespasser is using the property without interruption for the 21-year period. If the property in question is sold, the adverse possessor can “tack” together the periods of different ownership to achieve the 21-year requirement.  A “hostile” use of the property occurs when the rights of the owner and the adverse possessor’s use are in conflict. If the owner gives permission to use his property, adverse possession cannot occur. To satisfy the visible and notorious requirement, the adverse possessor’s use of the owner’s property must be public. This allows an owner the opportunity to discover the adverse possessor’s use and take legal action, if necessary to end such use. For exclusive possession to occur, the adverse possessor must prevent or exclude others from using the owner’s property.

What did Pennsylvania update?

Pennsylvania has enacted legislation that became effective on June 19, 2019, which provides for a 10-year (as opposed to 21-year) time frame to obtain real property by adverse possession under certain circumstances. The legislation is designed to assist adverse possessors when a property has an “absentee” owner. Under this new law, the property must be a half-acre or less, be improved by a single-family dwelling, and identified as a separate lot in a recorded conveyance, on a subdivision plan or on an official map/municipal plan. The law does not apply to property that is part of a common interest ownership community (condominium, cooperative) or that is owned by a governmental entity.

Under the new law, an adverse possessor may acquire title by filing a quiet title action against the record owner. The complaint, containing the legal description and notice of a one-year right to cure, must be served on the record owners, their heirs, successors, and assigns. This right to cure allows the defendant owners to file an action in ejectment against the plaintiff/adverse possessor within one year of the action. If no ejectment action is filed, the court may enter a judgment granting title to the entire property (not just a portion) to the plaintiff/occupant. The judgment, however, does not discharge, terminate, satisfy, or release any existing encumbrances on the title.

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