In Tennessee, adjoining landowners sometimes end up in court in boundary disputes. There are various reasons that boundary line disputes arise, including: imprecise descriptions in deeds; conflicts between descriptions in recorded plats and deeds to owners of subdivision lots; fences that have been in place for years, but that are not consistent with deed descriptions; and deed overlaps (where, for example, there is not enough land to satisfy the deed descriptions for two adjoining parcels which were once part of the same tract).
Even if a Tennessee court might otherwise resolve a boundary dispute in favor of Landowner A, instead of Landowner B, based strictly on deed descriptions and/or the testimony of a surveyor, Landowner B might still be declared the lawful owner of the disputed land. Why? In Tennessee, if adjoining landowners agree, even verbally, on a boundary line, the agreed boundary line may well become the legally accepted boundary line. Keep in mind that an agreement in this context requires some sort of communication and assent. It is typically not enough for one of the landowners to say simply that the other did not object to a fence, wall, or other boundary marker.
In addition to an agreement between adjoining landowners as to a boundary line, disputed property might be held to be the property of one of the landowners (let’s say Landowner B) based on the doctrine of adverse possession. This might be the case even if the court determines that the relevant deeds establish that the property would otherwise belong to Landowner A.
Generally (and loosely) speaking, under adverse possession laws, if Landowner B uses the land of Landowner A for the required period of time (in Tennessee, at least seven years and, maybe, as much as 20 years), then Landowner B might just be declared to be the owner of the disputed property (as long as the other elements of adverse possession are met). (Adverse possession is a topic for another blog, or two, as it is a pretty complicated legal doctrine).
How do Tennessee courts resolve boundary line disputes? Most, if not all, boundary line dispute cases require courts to consider written deeds and the testimony of surveyors. The primary object of a Tennessee court in any boundary line dispute case is to determine, from each party’s deed, exactly what land that party’s grantor intended to convey. That sounds simple enough, but it is not because deeds are often imprecise or inconsistent with other deeds, existing boundary markers, plats, or prior deeds involving the same property.
Sometimes licensed surveyors hired by each party to a boundary dispute case will arrive at different opinions about who owns the disputed property. This can occur, for example, because one surveyor chooses to draw a boundary line off an existing fencepost, while the other chooses to draw a boundary from an iron pin in the ground.
In Tennessee, here is the order of priority that a court will use to determine a boundary:
• First, the court will look to natural objects or landmarks
• Second, the court will look to artificial monuments or markers (which frequently are iron pins)
• Third, the court will look to the boundary lines of adjacent landowners
• Lastly, the court will look to courses and distances
The reason why a monument or adjacent line is given preference over courses and distances set out in a written document (like a deed) is because that approach is consistent with determining the intent of the party who conveyed the land. Why is that so? It is because the law naturally assumes that the person who conveyed the land actually viewed the property before he or she had the deed describing the property prepared. A view of the property might not reveal, for example, a bow in a fence line that occurs between two artificial markers like pins.
For an interesting and informative Tennessee boundary line dispute case concerning a deed overlap, take a look at Hodge v. Cornelison. For an informative case dealing with a situation where there was a conflict in surveys and one survey was based on a recorded subdivision plat, see the decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Thornburg v. Chase.