Why Litigating Boundary Disputes is Almost Always a Bad Idea.

Why Litigating Boundary Disputes is Almost Always a Bad Idea.

I teach a class to other lawyers occasionally entitled “Litigating Boundary Disputes.”  My opening is a joke.  I tell those listening it is an hourlong class, but I could teach it in one word. “Don’t!”  All jokes have a kernel of truth, and this is no exception.  Litigating a neighbor dispute is almost always a bad idea.  I always push my clients to settle early.  There are often ways to resolve the dispute that will get parties what they need without the downsides of litigation.

Here are the main reasons to settle a neighbor dispute:

  1. Cost: It is rare that a dispute over a boundary line or easement is worth the expense of litigation on a cost benefit analysis.  How much would it cost to litigate the case at over $300 an hour compared to paying a contractor to put in a new access in an easement dispute.  Since litigation is uncertain, the certainty of paying a contractor is often a better decision.  How much is the square footage of property worth in an adverse possession dispute compared with the cost of taking it to trial.  Unless the property is waterfront or the claim would make a lot unbuildable, the cost is often not worth it.
  2. Stress: Because you are living next to your enemy, the stress of litigation is enormous.  Litigation is always stressful, but neighbor disputes are infamous for creating unbearable stress.  I have seen it ruin marriages and people’s mental and physical health.
  3. Risk: This is a good reason to settle any case. Boundary line disputes are no different.  The problem many people have in a neighbor dispute is that they underestimate their own risk because they know that the neighbor is wrong, and they are right.  It can be difficult for a client to understand that a judge may not see it their way when their conviction is rock-solid.

It is often difficult to convince a client they are better off settling than litigating.  Here are the main reasons.

  1. Principal: If a client is fighting with their neighbor over a five-hundred square foot area that is worth $5.00 a foot, they are not doing it because it makes financial sense.  They are doing it because that property is theirs and they will not be told otherwise by anyone but a judge.
  2. Economic Reality: If losing that five-hundred square foot area makes a lot unbuildable, or severely limits the building footprint, it may make sense to litigate the issue if there is a good chance of success.  But this is only true if the other side is intransigent since there are creative ways to resolve this issue without litigation.
  3. An Unreasonable Neighbor. Sometimes there is no choice but to stand and fight when a neighbor is litigious and will not agree to a reasonable settlement.  This is the other side of the first reason – principal.

My partners and I have seen every iteration of the above and more.  We have tried these cases and won.  And we have tried these cases and lost.  For the most part we can use our experience to settle these cases so our client can decide how it will end – not a judge.  We bring creativity to solving these problems. Let us know if we can help.


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