Termination of Easements: Definition & Methods

Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Easements can be a real burden on property owners. In this lesson, you'll learn about the different types of termination of easements and how each may occur. You'll also have a chance to reinforce your knowledge with a short quiz.

Many Ways to Terminate

As you may recall, an easement is an interest in real property that allows its holder to enter into the land of another person and make a specific use of it. While there a few ways to create an easement, there are actually many more ways for an easement to terminate (sometimes referred to as the extinguishment of the easement). We are going to look at nine ways: merger, release, estoppel, prescription, abandonment, destruction of servient estate, forfeiture and expiration.

Don't worry; you can use the following mnemonic device to help you remember them:

Merging property enterprises shouldn't abandon, destroy forfeit or release easements.

Nearly each word in that sentence either relates to a method of termination or starts with the same letter as a method of termination. Now, let's take a deeper look at each method.

Manners of Termination

An easement may be extinguished by merger. Since an easement is an interest in land held by another person, if the dominant estate (i.e., the property benefiting from the easement) and the servient estate (i.e., the property burdened by the easement) become owned by the same person, there's no dominant or servient estate because they have merged into one. The same result occurs with an easement in gross because the holder of the personal right doesn't need the easement if he owns the property that was subject to the easement.

You not only can obtain an easement by prescription, you can have it extinguished by prescription as well. An easement is extinguished by prescription if the owner of the servient estate or someone else uses property subject to the easement in a way that is not consistent with the use of the easement. For example, if you have an easement to use a trail on your neighbor's property, you may lose the easement if the owner of the land blocks the trail with a fence for the statutorily required period of time.

The equitable doctrine of estoppel may also lead to the extinguishment of an easement. Estoppel is a principle of equity based upon ideas of fairness and avoiding injustice. Estoppel may apply if a holder of the easement right engages in conduct that results in the owner of the servient estate reasonably believing that the easement has been abandoned and the owner acted to her detriment based upon that belief. For example, lets say you have an easement to build, maintain and use a dock on someone's lakefront property. You fail to use and maintain the dock for ten years and fail to respond to inquiries about the dock from the owner of the property. In year 11, the owner spends significant time and money removing the dilapidated dock and replaces it with one of his own. You may be estopped from claiming a right of easement in year 12 based upon your conduct even if you never intended to abandon the easement.

An easement can rarely be extinguished by abandonment. However, a court may find abandonment if it can be proven that the holder of the easement intended to abandon the easement and engaged in conduct that supported such an intent. It's important to emphasize that both intent and conduct substantiating the intent must be present. Sometimes failure to use the right for long enough period of time is sufficient to establish the intent to abandon, but it depends on the circumstances. For example, if you hold an easement in gross for hunting on a parcel of land, missing a season or two of hunting on the property probably doesn't rise to abandonment, but not using the hunting ground for ten continuous hunting seasons and letting your deer stand fall apart during that time may be long enough to infer intent to abandon.

Destruction of servient estate may terminate an easement. Remember that the servient estate is the property burdened by the easement and sometimes it involves an easement over a building or some other structure on the property. If the structure is destroyed by some natural disaster or some third party (i.e., not the owner of the servient estate), the easement may be terminated. For example, if you have an easement to use a bridge and the bridge is destroyed by a tornado, you may lose the right to cross over that bridge.

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