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Understanding Adverse Possession (Usucapión) in Costa Rica

by rpetersen

In the realm of property law, adverse possession, known in Costa Rica as “Usucapión,” is a principle that allows a person to claim ownership of land based on the doctrine of adverse possession. This legal concept has profound implications when the land is zoned as being agricultural land since it brings into play provisions of the Agricultural legal code. This article will explore the elements that lead to a claim of adverse possession in agriculture and the best strategies to avoid such claims.

What is Adverse Possession?

Adverse possession is a legal doctrine that enables an individual who possesses the land of another for an extended period, under certain conditions, to claim legal ownership of that land. The rationale behind this law is to encourage the efficient use of land that might have been historically neglected.

Key Elements of Adverse Possession in Agriculture

For a successful claim of adverse possession in the agricultural sector, several criteria must be met, including:

  • Actual Possession: The claimant must physically use the land, such as cultivating crops or raising livestock, demonstrating control over the property.
  • Open and Notorious Possession: The use of the land must be visible and obvious to anyone, including the legal owner, making it possible for the owner to take action against the possessor.
  • Exclusive Possession: The claimant must possess the land to the exclusion of the true owner and others, using it as if they were the owner.
  • Hostile Possession: The possession must be without the owner’s permission, sometimes interpreted as using the land in defiance of the true owner’s rights.
  • Continuous Possession for a Statutory Period: The claimant must satisfy the continuous possession requirement for a specific period defined by local laws, which can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another.

The Legal Basis for Adverse Possession

In Costa Rica the following articles of the civil code deal with adverse possession:

  • ARTICLE 853. Ownership of a thing is acquired by positive prescription. The following conditions are required for a positive prescription: (a) Transfer of title of ownership. (b) Good faith. (c) Possession.
  • ARTICLE 854. The person who claims prescription is obligated to prove the just title, except in the case of easements, the right to possess, or movable properties, in which cases, the fact of possession presumes the title, unless proven otherwise.
  • ARTICLE 855. Good faith must last for the entire period of possession.
  • ARTICLE 856. Possession must be in the capacity of the owner, continuous, public, and peaceful.
  • ARTICLE 857. Possession acquired or maintained with violence is not useful for a prescription until the violence ceases.
  • ARTICLE 858. Similarly, hidden possession prevents prescription until it has been duly recorded or can be known by those interested in interrupting it.
  • ARTICLE 859. The current possessor who proves to have possessed at an earlier time has the presumption of having possessed in the meantime unless proven otherwise.
  • ARTICLE 860. To acquire ownership of real estate, or any real right over them by prescription, possession of ten years is required. The right to possess is prescribed by one year of possession.
  • ARTICLE 861. Possession of real estate or real rights over them, is not valid for prescription against a third party until the title is registered in the Public Registry, except as stated in the title of easements.
  • ARTICLE 862. To acquire ownership of movable property by prescription, in the case of having no other title than that which presumes possession, three years of possession are required. (As amended by Law No. 16 of December 12, 1887).
  • ARTICLE 863. The person trying to prescribe can complete the necessary time by adding to their period of possession the time that their predecessor possessed in good faith; whoever has possessed in any way that has acquired the right to possess, from the same person trying to prescribe, or from their predecessor.
  • ARTICLE 864. If several people possess something in common, none of them can prescribe against their co-owners; but they can prescribe against a stranger, and in this case, the prescription benefits all the co-participants.

These regulations emphasize the legal acknowledgment of possession as a means to acquire property ownership, underlining the necessity for clear, continuous, and public occupation, along with the legal registration of such claims to solidify ownership rights

How to Prevent Adverse Possession Claims in Agriculture

Protecting agricultural land from adverse possession claims is crucial for landowners. Here are several strategies to prevent such situations:

  • Regular Inspection: Regularly inspect your property to ensure that no unauthorized use occurs. This practice helps in identifying encroachments early on.
  • Clear Boundary Markers: Maintain clear and visible boundary markers. Fences, signs, or natural barriers can help delineate property lines distinctly.
  • Rental or Lease Agreements: If you allow someone to use your land, formalize this arrangement through a rental or lease agreement. This step establishes the use as permissive, negating the “hostility” element of adverse possession.
  • Address Trespasses Promptly: If you discover unauthorized use of your land, address it immediately. Legal notices or, if necessary, legal action can reaffirm your ownership rights.
  • Documentation and Records: Keep detailed records of any agreements, disputes, or actions taken regarding your property. This documentation can be invaluable in defending against adverse possession claims.


Adverse possession represents a an intersection of law, land use, and property rights. Understanding the elements that lead to a claim can equip landowners with the knowledge to safeguard their property effectively. By taking proactive measures to monitor and manage the use of their land, landowners can mitigate the risks associated with adverse possession, ensuring their property remains within their control

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