In theory, many disputes over boundary lines are fairly easy to settle. The parties in a dispute can have a survey done based on the deed description to mark the real boundary of the properties. However, the agreed-boundary doctrine is an exception to that rule.
According to California law, when there is some ambiguity about the real boundary, the owners of two adjoining parcels of land can agree on a marker or line, such as a fence or a line of stones on the ground, to act as the boundary between the parcels. Statute of limitations: If the agreement stands for at least five years, or if the title holder can show they rely on that agreement in such a manner that a change of position would incur substantial loss, this agreement then supersedes the legal description in the properties’ deeds.
In a 1994 case, Bryant v. Blevins, the California Supreme Court further determined that even if the legal descriptions in the deeds are not uncertain and can clarify the real boundary, the agreed-boundary doctrine still applies in the case of an established and long-standing agreement, and so the agreed boundary will still supersede the legal descriptions.
A fence by itself does not create a boundary line, however. Someone might allow the placement of a fence in a manner that does not strictly adhere to the boundary line as a matter of convenience, but the property boundary remains as described by the deed. In fact, most homeowners probably don’t think much about their fences and merely assume that they mark the boundary line, but this may not be the case. The agreed-boundary doctrine only applies if both parties explicitly agreed that this would be the official boundary for the statute of limitations and 1) either there is true uncertainty about the exact boundary, or 2) according to the Bryant v. Blevins exception, there is a long-standing agreement. Therefore, California courts require evidence that such an agreement in fact existed specifically to settle a dispute about the boundary line; the true boundary shouldn’t be changed merely because property owners were relying on a fence.
This leads to a crucial difficulty in establishing an agreed boundary: proving that there was such an explicit agreement, which may have well been made with a handshake, can be extremely difficult, especially in the case of residential properties. Without testimony from the original title holders at the time that such an agreement took place, real estate attorneys and their clients will likely have a hard time satisfying a California court that such an agreement should supersede the description in the deed. However, if there is evidence that the agreed-boundary doctrine should apply, a quiet title action might be the right solution: consult with one of our experienced California real estate attorneys today.