Real estate is often the biggest investment of a person or business. When a boundary dispute arises with a neighboring property owner, sound legal advice is important. Such a property owner will want to preserve the value of the real estate by keeping the title clear, yet resorting to litigation may also not always be the wisest choice.

After all, a boundary-dispute trial can be drawn out and expensive with the outcome uncertain. Nevertheless, there are times when such a lawsuit is the preferred course of action.

Presenting the matter to an attorney for analysis and advice is a smart first step. Boundary disputes can raise difficult legal and factual issues. Legal counsel will review relevant documents like deeds, plats, surveys and maps, as well as investigate the circumstances of the present dispute, the historical chain of ownership and anything communicated by the previous owner relevant to the present boundary issue.

Usually, negotiating a settlement of the disputed boundary with the other party will be advantageous logistically and financially. Having an experienced lawyer who understands what is at stake, what a trial of the matter would entail and how to effectively negotiate can be crucial.

If settlement is not successful, the next logical step may be a lawsuit, often a quiet title action in which the court will establish the disputed boundary line. Evidence the court could consider may include testimony of current and former owners, neighbors and surveyors; legal descriptions in deeds and other legal documents; surveys, plats and maps; and more.

Pennsylvania courts have said that their main job in a boundary dispute is to understand the parties' intentions at the time of the first subdivision of the land. Because that is likely to have happened long ago, the court will consider evidence that may be old or remote that otherwise might not be looked at as reliable, but is necessary to piece together the history of the boundary in question.

Pennsylvania courts have consistently preferred resolving boundary disputes under the doctrine of establishment of a consentable boundary line as a way to avoid drawn-out, adversarial litigation. This theory looks at the behavior of the parties to establish the boundary even if it is not exactly where a deed or survey says it is.

A consentable line can be shown either by "dispute and compromise," in which the parties consent to a boundary placement even if their original claims were different or by "recognition and acquiescence," when each owner has continuously occupied or claimed land on its side of a line for at least 21 years. In certain circumstances, an owner may be able to "tack" on the time of previous owners' possession to reach a total of 21 years.

If a consentable line cannot be established, other legal theories maybe considered like adverse possession or whether an easement should be recognized.

If the court must set the disputed boundary by analysis of available evidence, a complicated set of evidentiary rules applies. For example, depending on the legal description, if physical indicators of a boundary are inconsistent or illogical, the court gives greatest weight to natural landmarks (ridge, tree line, stump, creek, shoreline), then to manmade objects (fence, driveway, building), then to the boundaries of adjoining land parcels, then to courses and distances (methods of measurement of land). The trial can get very complicated if such an analysis becomes necessary.

The lawyers at Hoegen & Associates, P.C., in Wilkes-Barre represent commercial and residential clients in boundary disputes in both negotiated settlements and in litigation as well as in a wide array of other real estate matters.