Most of us have grown up with tangible personal property and are familiar with the concept of ownership of this type of property. In fact, even if we hadn’t grownup with the concept of property ownership, its prerequisites and attractions seem to be almost instinctively shared. If this seems dubious to you, just picture for a moment two children fighting over a toy—each one grasping firmly to an end and shouting: “Mine! Mine!” Fortunately for lawyers, this primal behavior is not limited to children. Society’s attempts to organize and control the basic desire to own property are reflected in the fact that entire areas and many sub areas of the law are dedicated to the rights and duties of property owners. Since society places such great emphasis on property, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider just what it actually means to own property in the first place.
Perhaps a good place to start our quest for understanding the nature of property ownership is to understand its limitations, beginning with the maxim, You never can truly own anything. Despite the simplistic nature of this assertion, it provides avaluable first clue into the nature of property ownership because thinking of property ownership in the legal sense means thinking about the legal rights of ownership. In this vein, one would be hard pressed to find an example of an absolute set of legal rights to anything, and the legal rights associated with property ownership are no exception.For example, even though we say a person owns their automobile, he probably does not have the legal right to drive it through his neighbor’s yard; his ownership does not grant unlimited rights with respect to what he owns. Similarly, forgo the property taxes on your house, and you probably will not be living there for too long—owner ship often poses affirmative duties to maintain that ownership. The points here are that property ownership is limited and ownership is almost never an all or nothing proposition.
Rather than viewing property ownership in a fixed, static, or absolute state, it is more appropriate to think of property as a bundle of sticks in which each stick represents aright or responsibility. Rather than owning a piece of property, one actually holds one or more rights related to that property, often accompanied by one or more obligations as well. The more absolute or complete the ownership of property by one individual or entity, the more rights from the bundle that individual or entity has. For example,real property (e.g., an apartment) may be rented or owned, singly or jointly, by two or more persons at the same time. In the latter case of joint ownership, the bundle of ownership rights might be split right down the middle with each person taking half of the entire bundle. Real property may be commercial, residential, or zonednonhabitable, but in every case it still has at least one owner—even if that owner is the government. Although the variations in property ownership are almost limitless,the bundle of rights associated with property ownership is probably never enough to be absolute—nobody ever has all of the sticks in the bundle.
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