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Who owns a piece of land is not a simple answer when it comes to adverse possession

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

If you own something, whether it's your car or some shares of Apple stock, it's easy to think it's yours no matter what. Keith Romer from our Planet Money podcast tells us when it comes to owning land, it's not always so simple.

KEITH ROMER, BYLINE: After Burt Banks agreed to sell two-thirds of an acre of woods, he had inherited an Ocean View, Del., he was presented with a pair of surprises. The first surprise came from his realtor after the prospective buyer had the land surveyed in 2021.

BURT BANKS: She contacted us and said, uh-oh, you've got a problem. You've got an encroachment.

ROMER: What is an encroachment? Like, what was it?

BANKS: She had a goat fence.

ROMER: Banks lives in Atlanta with his husband. They tried to get the neighbor to move the goat pen and its fence back across the property line. When she didn't, Banks sued her. That is when the second surprise arrived. His neighbor sued him back, arguing that according to a legal doctrine called adverse possession, she should be named his land's rightful owner.

BANKS: We were totally blindsided. We had never considered the possibility that somebody hostilely would try to take your land away.

ROMER: Adverse possession works like this. If someone begins to use your land as though they were the owner and you never explicitly kick them off or give them permission to stay, in time, that interloper can sue to take legal ownership away from you. Historically, adverse possession was a kind of use-it-or-lose-it thing to make sure potentially productive land wasn't just left sitting idle. These days, it's mostly used to settle minor boundary disputes.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)

ROMER: I asked the youngest interloper why she took this approach.

You're in a lawsuit. Any comment?

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BREATHING)

ROMER: But Evelyn, the goat, was not forthcoming. Melissa Schrock, the owner of Evelyn and three other goats, says she never knew that Burt Banks owned the wooded lot that separated her house from the next one over.

MELISSA SCHROCK: I always - like, my family had always thought that we kind of shared - like, half of these woods was ours, and then half kind of belonged to that house.

ROMER: Schrock's family moved here in 2001, when she was still in high school. They used Banks' land for storage and a place for their animals. And importantly, they had been doing it for 20 years, long enough to file for adverse possession in Delaware. Schrock decided to represent herself in court.

SCHROCK: Like, I read every single adverse possession case that's been heard going back to, like, 18-something in the state of Delaware.

ROMER: After a short trial, the judge ruled that Schrock did not need to move her goat pen, and she would be made the owner of Burt Banks entire lot. Understandably, Banks was not pleased with the ruling.

BANKS: I thought it was insane, just absolutely crazy - unfair.

ROMER: As far as I could tell, though, Evelyn, the goat, approved.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)

ROMER: Keith Romer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOE SUNRISE'S "LALIBELA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Keith Romer has been a contributing reporter for Planet Money since 2015. He has reported stories on risk-pooling among poker players, whether it's legal to write a spin-off of the children's book Goodnight Moon and the time one man cornered the American market in onions. Sometimes on the show, he sings.