Adverse Possession and Property Disputes Clarified

The Georgia Court of Appeals issued a decision that provides some guidance to the often-unintuitive law known as adverse possession. In Houston v. James, A20A1689 (February 3, 2021), three siblings involved in a property dispute sued each other over a 28-acre parcel owned by their deceased father. One sibling lived on and took care of the 28 acres for more than 20 years. But his father left most of the property to the other two siblings. The sibling left out argued he owned the 28 acres by adverse possession. He claimed he had had publicly, continuously, uninterruptedly, and peaceably possessed the property for more than 20 years. His two siblings disagreed, arguing that the possession was without a “claim of right.”

To be adverse, possession must be for more than 20 years and must be public, continuous, exclusive, uninterrupted, peaceable, accompanied by a claim of right, and not originate in fraud. OCGA § 44-5-161(a). Also, and quite importantly, the party adversely possessing must have a “claim of right” to the property.

A claim of right means the possessor claims the property as his own. Under Georgia law, a claim of right, or adverse possession, will be presumed from the assertion of dominion, particularly where the possessor has made valuable improvements. See Childs v. Sammons, 272 Ga. 737, 739 (2) (534 SE2d 409) (2000). Georgia courts have held that there does not need to be direct evidence of the state of mind of the possessor concerning claim of title; however, there must be evidence of some claim of title in the sense that the possessor claims the property as his own. Walker v. Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, 285 Ga. 194, 674 S.E.2d 925 (2009).

In Houston, the Court of Appeals concluded that a jury must decide whether the sibling claiming the property by adverse possession did so with a claim of right. If you have a property dispute concerning adverse possession, please call us at 404-382-9994 to discuss your options.

In Georgia, how long do you have to tender the statutory redemption amount following a tax sale and how much do you have to pay?

OCGA § 48-4-42 says: “The amount required to be paid for redemption of property from any sale for taxes . . . shall . . . be the amount paid for the property at the tax sale . . . plus a premium of 20 percent of the amount for the first year or fraction of a year which has elapsed between the date of the sale and the date on which the redemption payment is made and 10 percent for each year or fraction of a year thereafter.”

OCGA § 48-4-40 says the tax deed purchaser may terminate the right to redeem one year after the tax sale by sending out notices to any interested parties. The notice regarding the tax deed must include a deadline to redeem.  

It sounds simple enough, but what if the parties can’t agree on an amount? And what if a party redeems within the deadline by mistakenly pays less than the full redemption amount required under the statute? This situation arose in D&D Family Properties, LLC v. Wright, A20A1339 (November 3, 2020).

In Wright, the tax sale took place on July 5, 2017. The Court of Appeals found that the deadline starts running on the date of the tax sale. Thus, the deadline to redeem fell on July 4 of the following year. The redeeming party submitted $7,600 on July 5 ($6,000 for the amount paid at the tax sale plus the 20% premium). It did this thinking the one-year deadline ran on July 5. Or because July 4 was a holiday, the deadline rolled over to the next business day.

The Court of Appeals disagreed. It ruled that by July 5, the redeeming party owed an additional 10%. Thus, the $7,600 was inadequate, and the redeeming party could not redeem.

The takeaway is the Court of Appeals is willing to strictly enforce the statutes regarding tax sales.

Easements by Adverse Possession or Prescription

Georgia law allows a party to obtain a private way (or easement) over the land of another through a process known as prescription (also sometimes called adverse possession). See OCGA Section 49-4-40 et seq. This requires seven years’ uninterrupted use through improved lands. To show prescription, however, the party seeking an easement must show (1) uninterrupted use of the alleged private way, (2) that the private way is no more than twenty feet wide, (3) that he or she has kept the private way in repair, (4) and that the use was public, continuous, exclusive, peaceable, and accompanied by a claim of right. Finally, the use of the alleged easement must be adverse. This means that if the owner of the property gave permission to use the property, there cannot be adverse possession.

To obtain an easement over another’s land, the party seeking an easement must prove each of the above elements. All things being equal, the courts will favor the property owner over the party claiming an easement. This makes sense. Obtaining a legal right to go over someone else’s property should not be easy. On the other hand, a property owner should have some responsibility to know how his or her property is being used and to prevent unauthorized use.

A recent Georgia Court of Appeals case decided this issue. In Wilkes 581 Farms, LLC v. McAvoy, A20A1225 (September 18, 2020), a party claimed an easement over a road belonging owned by another party. The court ruled against an easement over the road because the property owner had given permission to use the road. Thus, the claim was not adverse. In other words, if a property owner gives permission, there cannot be adverse possession or prescription.

Secondarily, the court ruled that the party seeking an easement lost because he could not show his the use of the road was exclusive. Instead, the evidence showed that others used the road.

If you have an easement question or dispute, please call us at 404-382-9994.

Uninsured Motorist Insurance in Georgia: Notice

First and foremost, you should buy uninsured motorist insurance! This type of insurance covers situations in which you are injured by driver who has no insurance or minimal insurance. This is an optional coverage, which everyone should get because it is relatively inexpensive and there are many uninsured and underinsured drivers out there.

If you have (hopefully) purchased uninsured motorist coverage, how quickly do you need to notify your insurance carrier? According to a recent case, as soon as possible. In Hyde v. State Farm, A20A1221 (2020), a negligent driver injured the claimant on August 18, 2016. An attorney notified the claimant’s employer on December 6, 2016, who in turn notified State Farm on December 7, 2016. However, the attorney did not directly notify State Farm until much later.

Because the attorney addressed the December 7, 2016 letter to the employer, the Court of Appeals ruled that State Farm did not receive notice. Moreover, the Court of Appeals ruled that under the State Farm insurance policy, notice is required “as soon as reasonably possible after the injured insured is first examined or treated for the injury.” Here, the notice was not as soon as reasonably possible. Finally, the Court of Appeals ruled that the delay in providing notice was not justified.

At our office, our standard procedure is to notify the at-fault driver’s insurance company and your insurance company as soon as possible. This avoids any chance of losing your right to recover due to late notice. Please call us at 404-382-9991 if you are in a car accident and need an attorney. We will come to you if you do not have a ride.

Were you injured or a crime victim on someone else’s property?

an example of an invitee

If you slip and fall or a rape victim on someone else’s property, the reason why you are on the property matters. Whether you can recover for your injuries often turns on your relationship with the property owner. The law has fancy words to describe the different types of relationships, which we cover below.

The first type of relationship, that of a trespasser, is easy to understand. A trespasser is someone who goes onto someone else’s property without invitation or permission. An example is if someone breaks into your house. If the trespasser gets hurt, you are responsible only if you intentionally tried to hurt the trespasser. This becomes relevant in a landlord-tenant situation. If a lease does not identify a tenant, arguably the tenant is a trespasser and will have a tough claim against the landlord. However, this can be overcome if the landlord knew the tenant was living on the property but took no action.

The next step up is a licensee. This is a person invited onto the property as a social guest but who does not provide a benefit to the owner. A licensee is on the property only for his own convenience. O.C.G.A. § 51-3-2. So, if you invite a friend to your house, your friend is an invitee. If a licensee is injured, the property owner must exercise reasonable care to prevent injury.

Finally, there is what is known as an invitee. An invitee is a person who is invited and provides benefit to the owner. An example is if you go to Publix to buy groceries. You have been invited by the Publix onto the property and are benefiting Publix by buying groceries. With regard to an invitee, a property owner must exercise ordinary care to keep the property safe. This is a higher standard than a licensee. And requires the owner to inspect its property to make sure it is safe for its customers.

If you are injured or are a crime victim on someone else’s property, please call us. Our number is (404) 382-9991.