Normally, boundary disputes between neighbors are resolved by a survey to establish the location property lines contained in a deed. However, under certain circumstances, a neighbor may show that the property line was established by an agreement between the neighbors on each side of the line. In Martin v. Van Bergen, the California Court of Appeal discussed the limits of this “boundary by agreement” doctrine.
In the Martin case, the Martin property had a fence parallel to, but well inside, the property line adjacent to the Van Bergen property. In 1947, the Van Bergens’ predecessor planted an almond orchard with the assistance of their neighbor who owned the parcel later purchased by the Martins. Part of the orchard was planted on the land between the property line and the fence. The testimony at trial was that, when the orchard was planted, both neighbors believed that the fence was on the property line.
In 2005 a survey identified the property line as shown in the deeds, and found that the orchard encroached on the Martins’ property. The Martins filed suit, seeking an order confirming that they owned the land between the fence the original property line. The Van Bergens argued that the court should determine that the property line was at the fence pursuant to the boundary by agreement doctrine.
The Martin court held that the boundary by agreement doctrine did not apply. The court stated that the doctrine applied only when: a) there was uncertainty about the true boundary; b) the adjoining owners agreed to a line; and c) the adjoining owners accepted the agreed line for a time equal to the statute of limitations or under circumstances that would cause a substantial loss if the agreed line was not enforced. In Martin, the true boundary was not uncertain – it could be (and was) established with a survey. Further, there was no evidence that the fence was built for the purpose of establishing the property line. Thus, even though the owners may have assumed that the fence was the boundary line, the elements necessary for application of the boundary by agreement doctrine was not met.
The Martin decision is consistent with public policy that favors certainty of title to property. If prospective purchasers of property cannot rely on the accuracy of a deed, it will be more difficult to sell the property. An agreement of neighbors about the boundaries of their property (without a deed to record the agreement) will be enforced only where the property line could not be determined from deeds.