Thomas J. Scribner
(Please understand that the answers to these questions are general in nature and may not cover every individual situation.)
Laches. Now here is a word you don’t hear very often unless you are a lawyer drafting an answer to a complaint. The doctrine of laches is an important one to understand as you go through life, especially if you deal with land or other “things” that may be out of your control or difficult to check on. After you learn about it, it will probably make sense.
The doctrine of laches is based on the maxim that “equity aids the vigilant and not those who slumber on their rights.” (Black’s Law Dictionary). You can’t ignore that issue hoping it will resolve itself with the idea that you can always go to court over it. Society and the courts want closure, so statutes of limitation and other time bars are put into place to allow that to happen. Laches is what happens if the statute of limitations hasn’t run yet but you haven’t done anything about it for so long, you must not care.
A classic example of the laches doctrine actually turned into law is adverse possession. You would think that if you have been deeded some property it was yours forever. Well, not necessarily. If someone moves onto your land, openly using it and holding it out as his own, pays the property taxes, and does that for seven years, he can then bring an action, asking the court to give him the property because you haven’t objected or done anything to get him off of your property. You slept on your rights and so lost them.
Where do I see this most? In family relationships, like when parents die and it’s not really clear what is going on to sort out their estate. You don’t want to create a scene and so you put off confronting that sibling who has moved into the family home and hasn’t distributed you anything for many years. If your sibling takes offense of you wanting an accounting, time to get a lawyer and nip it in the bud. The longer you wait the less likely you are of winning a battle.
Another frequent area of concern is the problem with the legal description of that road or driveway or fence. Your neighbor is kind of testy about that and who wants to stir up a hornet’s nest? Let enough time go by and you will lose by literally doing nothing. That is laches.
Think about those issues your family has put off and make a decision: either it simply isn’t worth fighting over, so let it go, or it is worth fighting over, so get after it before laches defeats you.