Don't Fence Me In: Larry Hagman and Adverse Possession

By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 04, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A California Appellate Court clarified that it's easier to steal acquire land from a religious organization than from some other private entity.

That's because an adverse possessor snagging a religious organization's property doesn't have to meet the standard five-year tax requirement.

We'll explain.

"Dallas" star Larry Hagman owned a 30-acre parcel of land in Ojai, California, the Los Angeles Times reports. In 1987, one of the fences marking the boundary of his property was built in the wrong place. Since then, Hagman (who died in 2012) and his family have been occupying and improving a 0.44-acre portion of the 173-acre parcel owned by his adjoining neighbor, the Meher Mount Corporation.

Meher Mount is a religious group whose "primary purpose" is to "provide for the betterment of mankind by implementing the teachings of Meher Baba." The land it owns is irrevocably dedicated to that purpose. Between 1999 and 2004, Meher Mount applied and qualified for a welfare exemption as a religious organization using its property for educational purposes, so it did not pay Ventura County property taxes during those years. (It did, however, pay the Mosquito Control and Vector Borne Disease Prevention Assessment levied on its land, which amounted to $12.08 for all five years.) Hagman also didn't pay any taxes or assessments on Meher Mount's property for those years.

In early 2011, Hagman's trust sued Meher Mount to quiet title to the disputed half acre based on adverse possession. Meher Mount filed a cross-complaint for trespass and ejectment, arguing that (1) tax-exempt religious organizations are public entities immune from adverse possession under Civil Code section 1007; and (2) Hagman did not prove, as a prerequisite to adverse possession, that he paid either the yearly property taxes or the mosquito assessment on Meher Mount's land for a five-year period. The trial court granted summary judgment for Hagman.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court on appeal.

Here, the appellate court held that a nonprofit religious organization's status as a "public benefit corporation" does not make it a "public entity" immune from adverse possession under Civil Code section 1007. Furthermore, a nonprofit religious organization's "welfare exemption" from property taxes means that the adverse possessor is excused from the usual requirement that he pay taxes on the disputed land for five years.

In the relative terms of adverse possession, the appellate court's ruling means that taking land from a religious organization is almost as easy as taking candy from a baby.

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