Property Line Disputes and Unwritten Property Rights in Minnesota

Property Dispute

Surveying land and closely examining deeds prior to purchase avoids most issues regarding property lines. Yet various legal doctrines can stand in the way of even the most careful purchase, leaving the buyer with less than what they bargained for. Prescriptive easements, adverse possession, and easements implied by preexisting use can all establish property rights, even though no written agreement exists. As with most property disputes, these can be difficult to resolve. The following is a brief discussion of each of the three areas.

Prescriptive Easements

In Rogers v. Moore, 603 N.W.2d 650 (Minn. 1999), the Rogers owned a piece of property directly south of an adjoining property to the north, with a gravel driveway as the Rogers’ northern border. They held this property for close to 30 years. Near the end of this period, the Moores purchased the piece of property to the north. They had the land surveyed prior to making the purchase, and discovered that the Rogers’ driveway actually encroached upon their land by about three feet. The Moores weren’t concerned by this, however, because there was no written easement on the deed. The Moores treated the land as their own, building a fence on their portion of the driveway, and eventually installed a pole to block the driveway from being used. This resulted in the legal dispute over the use of the land.

The court held that the Rogers were allowed to continue their use of the full driveway because they had created a prescriptive easement. Creating a prescriptive easement “requires a showing that the property has been used in an actual, open, continuous, exclusive, and hostile manner for 15 years.” The elements must be shown by clear and convincing evidence, a standard falling between a preponderance of the evidence (a fact is more likely to be true than false) and beyond reasonable doubt (as used in criminal cases). The Rogers’ use of the driveway over the years was enough to meet this burden, so they were allowed to continue their use.

Adverse Possession

Adverse possession is very similar to prescriptive easements, with the largest difference being the ownership interest created. With prescriptive easements, a right to use the land is created but the other party still owns the land. With adverse possession, however, the user gains actual ownership over the land they have possessed. In Rogers v. Moore, the driveway would have been owned by the Rogers, rather than just used by them.

“Proving adverse possession requires the same elements as creating a prescriptive easement: use in an actual, open, continuous, exclusive, and hostile manner for 15 years. Some elements—such as continuity of use—are viewed more strictly in the adverse possession setting than for prescriptive easements. The elements again must be shown by clear and convincing evidence.”

Easements Implied by Preexisting Use

In Romanchuk v. Plotkin, 9 N.W.2d 421 (Minn. 1943), plaintiffs were suing to establish an easement for the use of a sewer pipe running through their neighbors’ land. The two pieces of land had once been a single parcel with two houses, each equipped with plumbing serviced by a common sewer drain, connected to the public sewer in the bordering road. Since the other adjacent street was not available for public sewage, this was the only realistic sewage option for plaintiff. Eventually defendants threatened to sever the connection of the drain, leading plaintiffs to bring this action.

The Supreme Court considered the issue under the doctrine of implied grant of easement, and held that an easement had been established. Easements implied by existing use require three elements: the properties were once part of the same tract, there was an apparent existing use at the time of tract division, and the easement must be reasonably necessary for enjoyment of the other property. Here, the tracts were once one, and the use of the sewer pipe existed when the properties were split. While the pipe may not have been visible, it was still apparent—one could, after a reasonable inspection of the premises, discover the existence of the use. Lastly, the use of the sewer pipe was reasonably necessary, since the other road did not have an accessible sewer line and there wasn’t a realistic way to circumvent defendant’s land.


There are a few things to take away from these cases. First, it’s again important to note that none of these property rights were reflected in any written instrument. This does not mean that they will not be enforced. Second, property disputes get personal, and resolving them is often not an easy task. For example, in Rogers v. Moore, the Moores were approached with an offer to purchase an easement which would have allowed the full use of the driveway. The Moores not only rejected this offer, but also installed a metal pole on their side of the driveway to keep the Rogers from driving on it. In a dispute that rose all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, one can imagine the legal fees that each side incurred.

Surveying the land and examining the deed reveal much information about a property, and are necessary steps prior to purchase. Such an investigation, however, might fail to uncover certain non-written restrictions on the property. Prescriptive easements, adverse possession, and easements implied by preexisting use each give property rights to outside parties, despite the lack of an express agreement.

Leave a Public Comment

  • Paul
    February 25, 2016, 6:16 pm

    I own large parcel of Agricultural Land as well as 500 acres of Woodland (that sits inside the Ag. Land.) (this land has been in my family for over 140 years) approx. 90 years ago one of my relatives gave a 40 acre parcel of the wooded land to a worker that they hired to remove some timber. The agreement was they would give the Worker 40 Acres of the Woodland to own based on the him removing the Timber. This particular 40 acre parcel is completely Land-locked inside my property. Over the past 50 years our family has allowed the ancestors of the original owner/worker to have access to their 40 acres for Hunting Purposes by us making a small field road through our Corn Field so they could drive their vehicle to their property to hunt. We also provided a access gate (that is locked) so no other outsiders could gain access to our Private property. Naturally, over the years conflict has resolved with each other, primarily due to the Hunter’s they allow to hunt on their property. We have tried to resolve these issues over the years to No avail. I want to know what I can leagally do at this time from Not allowing him to access his property since it is Landlocked? Can I simply replace the lockI have on the gate? Which would prohibit them fron gaining access? Or, Since the small cart way that I made approx. 10-12 feet wide that runs right through the middle of my corn filed, could I simply plant my corn on the cartway which would eliminate access? These two options would definantly be the least expensive. Or, I assume I would be allowed to Fence (on my wooded land) completely around his 40 acre parcel? By doing this it would virtually eliminate and deer gaining access the his property. This would be much more costly. If he went to the county courts to obtain and Easment to his land and obtained it, would or could the Judge make him put a fence around his 40 acre parcel (if so, he would have to absorb to cost of the fencing and the Cartway correct? Looking forward to your advise. Thanks!!

  • ed
    April 2, 2015, 4:14 pm

    my wife and I bought a piece of property and someone else owns the property in front of us. the driveway clearly goes on both pieces of property. the owner to the other property says he owns the whole driveway. We have paperwork that clearly shows the driveway is on both properties. The driveway was built years ago like in 2000 or before. the people who owned the place before we bought it built the driveway and there was never any issues of them using it. With the new owner of the property in front of us it looks like he is trying to make issues of us using the driveway. by the way there is no other way into our property. I don’t want to fight with this guy but I also don’t want to quit using the driveway either. what is the law on that?

  • kathe
    September 12, 2014, 3:28 pm

    with driveway easements who is responsible for upkeep of the road ie snow plowing, tree fall across road.

  • C. Anderson
    July 1, 2014, 5:10 am

    We purchased property 17 years ago. Everything seemed clear cut. We find out this spring we were wrong. There are many elements to this but the most immediate one is that it looks like our driveway is in the wrong place and the neighbors garage is built right over my deeded 12 ft strip of land that is supposed to be my driveway (which by the way cuts their land in half). I believe the driveway was moved years ago for that garage when this family (parents, son, daughter) owned all these parcels, before selling them off. Now what? can I make them move their garage?