Let’s suppose you buy undeveloped property and ask your east neighbor where the property line is so you can build an expensive fence on your side of the property line. He tells you it is a row of trees he planted last year and that if you build west of those trees, you are building on your land. And let’s suppose you build the fence, but your east neighbor later tells you the property line is 15 feet west of the tree line, so your new and expensive fence is on his land. Under Utah’s boundary line laws and the doctrine of boundary by estoppel, does the new fence create a new property line? It likely does.
This post discusses the specific elements of the doctrine of boundary by estoppel and how fact patterns like the one above can change legal property lines. It also discusses practical challenges in having a new boundary recognized, a more detailed example of how boundary by estoppel might be triggered, and how this doctrine is different from other similar doctrines related to boundary disputes, including boundary by acquiescence and boundary by agreement.
The Elements of Boundary by Estoppel
Boundary by estoppel is a legal doctrine in Utah that tries to promote fairness between neighbors. It is designed to prevent fraud and injustice by protecting landowners who reasonably rely on adjoining neighbors’ representations regarding property lines. This doctrine applies (and prevents a neighbor from claiming a different property line) if: (1) a neighbor makes an affirmative misstatement that a certain line is the true boundary between neighbors’ properties, (2) an innocent neighbor takes affirmative action in reasonable reliance on that misstatement, and (3) that innocent neighbor would suffer substantial and unfair or unreasonable injury if the misrepresenting neighbor could enforce the true boundary line.
If a neighbor knows that another neighbor’s misstatement is false and nevertheless moves forward, that neighbor doesn’t act innocently and cannot claim rights by estoppel. Also, if the injury an innocent neighbor sustains is not substantial, boundary by estoppel likely does not apply. The injury must be so bad that it would be unfair or unreasonable to enforce the actual boundary line.
Practical Challenges of Boundary by Estoppel
Satisfying the elements of boundary by estoppel does not change the legal descriptions of neighbors’ properties. In other words, even after a neighbor makes misstatements regarding a boundary, another neighbor relies on those misstatements, and all the elements of boundary by estoppel are satisfied, the county recorder’s office will still show the ownership that existed before the elements were satisfied. The two neighbors, if in agreement, will need to execute and record a boundary line agreement that recognizes the change based on the representations. But if one neighbor doesn’t want to move forward with a boundary line agreement, the other neighbor may have to file a lawsuit to get a court order that recognizes the boundary change. In such a lawsuit, each party will probably have to pay their own legal fees. These and other property line disputes are expensive, and they often involve he-said-she-said disputes, so they are usually best resolved outside of court.
An Example of Boundary by Estoppel
Let’s suppose a neighbor buys a piece of undeveloped land with a neighbor to his east. No fence separates the property from the eastern property, but a row of old logs runs somewhere near the property line. The new neighbor asks his east neighbor where the property line is specifically, not wanting to get a survey. The east neighbor affirmatively states, “When you bought your land, I put those logs there to show you where the property line is. I had a survey done some time ago, and I’m certain that is the line. As long as you build to the west of those logs, you are building on your property.”
Relying on that conversation, the new neighbor proceeds to build a large and expensive stone wall right up against the row of logs. He also builds a shed, gazebo, and expensive landscaping right up to that wall, including an ornate water feature. These improvements cost well over $200,000. A couple months later, the east neighbor comes to the new neighbor and says, “I’m sorry, but you built your fence and all those improvements on my property. The true property line wasn’t the logs. The actual boundary line is 15 feet to the west of those logs. You’ll have to remove all the improvements because they are on my land.” The new neighbor gets a survey done and finds that the east neighbor’s first representations regarding the property line were false; the later statements were accurate.
Under Utah law, does the new neighbor have to move his improvements? Probably not, so long as he didn’t know that the true property line wasn’t the row of logs. If he didn’t know the true line, he was likely an innocent neighbor who took affirmative action based on the east neighbor’s affirmative misrepresentation. It would almost certainly be unfair and unjust for the new neighbor to spend even more money to take down $200,000 worth of improvements. That injury, in these circumstances, would likely be unreasonable, and the three elements of boundary by estoppel have most likely established the new wall as the property line, not the line recognized in the county recorder’s office records.
Differences Between Boundary by Agreement and Boundary by Acquiescence
The legal doctrine of boundary by agreement could be confused with the related but separate doctrine of boundary by acquiescence. Under boundary by acquiescence, a property owner can create a new property line and take land from a neighbor when the property owner physically establishes a new property line for a period of 20 years without any protest from an adjoining neighbor. The land the property owner takes is then legally his, just as is the case with boundary by estoppel. That land no longer belongs to his neighbor.
Boundary by estoppel may not be as harsh as boundary by acquiescence. It doesn’t just happen by failure to dispute a property line, which is the case with boundary by acquiescence. In a boundary change by estoppel, a property line changes because a party makes a misrepresentation regarding that property line that at least one other person relies on to his detriment. To not recognize the misstated and relied-upon property line would arguably be unjust.
Another difference between boundary by acquiescence and boundary by estoppel is that boundary by estoppel can happen quite quickly, in a matter of days. Boundary by acquiescence, on the other hand, requires 20 years of a visible property line with no objection from the other neighbor before it takes effect.
Also, boundary by estoppel should not be confused with the separate doctrines of boundary by agreement (although very similar) or adverse possession, which also can change boundary lines and property rights.
Addressing Property Line Disputes
If you have questions about—or are involved in—a property line dispute, the laws explained above may be applicable. Property line disputes involve a variety of legal and practical issues, and an experienced attorney can help you understand and navigate those issues. If you need help, I am happy to assist. I offer a free consultation. My direct dial is 801-365-1021, and you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.