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Delaware Adverse Possession Laws

When you heard about it, you may have chalked it up to an urban legend. You know, it's a story of urban squatters taking over a downtown building, or about someone who had a bunch of land out in the country but lost some of it to trespassers. But under certain circumstances, it's all too real.

By the letter of the law, the act of trespassing for so long that you gain a right of ownership or pass-through is called “adverse possession.” This can be pretty disconcerting to a layperson. So how does adverse possession work, and how does the First State treat cases under state law? This is a brief summary of adverse possession laws in Delaware.

Adverse Possession Laws in General

As noted above, the legal doctrine known as "adverse possession" stretches back a long way and is designed to encourage landowners to keep an eye on and make beneficial use of their land. The concept allows trespassers to gain legal title to property by openly inhabiting and improving the property and meeting some other specific conditions. Under Delaware's adverse possession law, an individual must occupy property for at least 20 years before the possibility of ownership.

Adverse Possession in Delaware

The main provisions of adverse possession laws in Delaware are highlighted in the chart below.

Code Section Tit. 10 §§7901, et seq.
Time Period Required for Occupation 20 yrs.-
Time for Landowner to Challenge/Effect of Landowner's Disability After disability lifted: 10 yrs.
Improvements -
Payment of Taxes -
Title from Tax Assessor -

The minimum time requirement is not the only hurdle for adverse possession. A trespasser must also prove four additional elements to have a legitimate adverse possession claim:

  • There must be a “hostile” claim: the trespasser must either
    • Make an honest mistake (like relying on an incorrect deed);
    • Merely occupy the land (with or without knowledge that it is private property); or
    • Be aware of his or her trespassing;
  • There must be actual possession: the trespasser must be physically present on the land, treating it as his or her own;
  • There must be open and notorious possession: the act of trespassing cannot be secret; and
  • There must be exclusive and continuous possession: the trespasser cannot share possession with others, and must be in possession of the land for an uninterrupted period of time.

Related Resources for Delaware Adverse Possession Laws

Real estate and land use law can be confusing. If you want to understand your rights and responsibilities as a landowner or discuss a real estate case or adverse possession matter, you can also contact a Delaware real estate attorney. You can also visit FindLaw’s adverse possession section more introductory information and resources on this topic.

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