If we could all just take a moment and date back to a time when you had about $20 extra spending money in your wallet, and thought about going to see that new movie that just came out, perhaps splurge on a meal at Red Lobster, bump up your Netflix subscription, or maybe just purchase a 3200 square foot mansion complete with a backyard pool in the plush Dallas Suburbs? No? Well, you may or may not have heard about Kenneth Robinson, the 51 year old man who neither bought nor rented the $350,000 Texas property, yet legally occupied the home for seven months by using an obscure law of Adverse Possession.
The development of Adverse Possession as a common law concept can be traced back to the 1800s. It was enacted to ensure that no property was abandoned and left without any monitoring and maintenance. To do so, the person with the intent of occupying the land was required to post a clear public notice stating that there is someone at the property and that someone would remain at the property for a specified time period. It is only after this time lapses that the occupant is allowed the chance to claim clear title to the property. In all fairness, the original property owner can rightfully fight the action during this period, but the cost of doing so is a huge deterrence. Considering the property is already abandoned, it is highly unlikely that they would be willing to wage an expensive battle to reclaim it, plus fight a court action on top of all that.
The foreclosure crisis had brought about a rise in the number of abandoned homes in the United States. In the case of Kenneth Robinson, the previous home owner had walked out on his mortgage, the mortgage company itself had gone bankrupt, and no one else had stepped up to claim the house. All the former marine did, or had to do , was pay $16 to file a single paged “affidavit of adverse possession” that allowed him to occupy the property, on condition that he kept the lawn neat, paid the homeowner’s association fees and taxes.
According to Texas occupancy laws, Robinson could have the house he was occupying in as little as three years just by taking advantage of this law of adverse possession. The law grants exclusive negotiating rights with the original owner. If the original owner wants the occupant to leave, then the owner would be required to pay off the mortgage and the bank would also have to file a lawsuit to get the occupant to leave.
Obviously Robinson taking up residency this way did not sit well with his neighbors. One of them candidly stated in an interview with local reporters, that if he wanted the house then he should buy the house just like everyone else has to.
However, he had done nothing wrong in the eyes of the law. He strictly followed all legal procedures involved, attempting to systematically beat the system.
David Decosse, the director of campus ethics programs at Santa Clara University, said that despite Robinson having the right to do what he is doing, that does not mean that it is the right thing to do. He went on to draw from famous moral thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, who would argue that such actions should only be acceptable during extreme emergency situations, otherwise they only serve to offend our moral sensibilities. Legally permissible and ethically right, do not always go hand in hand.
Bank of America eventually stepped up and claimed ownership of the house. He was ordered by a judge to either vacate the house or appeal by 13. February. 2012. Robinson left without incident, stating that he followed proper legal procedure and those that sought to evict him did the same.
A spokesman from the National Association of Realtors said that because of how uncommon adverse possession was, it was not really on their radar. After all, this obscure law, in this century, usually comes into play when settling rows between feuding neighbors over lawn or driveway space, not to take over a whole house!
Nonetheless, the fact that Robinson legally settled and had the rights to a $350,000 McMansion for 7 months after parting with only $16 is because he followed the law. Of course his story spawned numerous imitators which then made the whole adverse possession craze to get out of hand.
According to the Associated Press, County Clerks have seized processing any fillings without prosecutors’ approval. Anyone hoping to claim a mansion when the tenants have left for a weekend, like the case in Arlington Texas where a nurse left her house for two days only to come back and find it occupied by a man who claimed he had filed the law of adverse possession, can stop trying to use shortcuts. The law will not be on your side then.