In this article, we will look at certain aspects of Missouri’s fence law set forth in Mo.Rev.Stat. 272.010 et seq.
In “general fence law” counties, neighboring landowners who have livestock are required to share in the costs of constructing and maintaining a division fence. If, however, one neighbor does not own livestock, he is not required to pay any such costs, unless, of course, he later acquires livestock, in which case he may be required to reimburse his neighbor for constructing and/or maintaining a division fence (but only if the neighbor who built the fence reports the total costs of it to the associate circuit court in that county and follows the appropriate rules for recording such costs on each neighbor’s deed). By contrasts, in counties opting for the “local fence rules," both neighbors are required to pay for one-half of the cost of any "lawful fence," as long as either neighbor has livestock.
There is a important exception to the foregoing rules. In all counties in Missouri, neighboring landowners are free to make private arrangements regarding division fences. Whatever agreements the parties conclude, they must be put in writing (to be enforceable), signed, notarized and recorded against the legal title of all landowners sharing the division fence (to give the whole world notice of such arrangements).
If no private fence agreement exists between the parties, a landowner’s duty to maintain a division fence changes depending on which county you are in. In “general fence” counties, the prevailing test is the right-hand rule, which states that each landowner shall stand on his land looking at the common boundary and find the midpoint; once the midpoint is established, he is responsible for maintaining all that fence lying to his right. Again, this assumes that both neighboring landowners have livestock. In optional counties, to the contrary, there is no right-hand rule per se. Rather, each neighbor is simply required to build and maintain "half" of any “lawful fence," provided at least one neighbor has livestock.
So, what is a lawful fence? Well, again that answer depends on your county. In “general fence law” counties, a lawful fence consists of posts and wire or boards at least four feet high with posts set firmly in the ground not more than 12 feet apart with wire or boards securely fastened to such posts and placed at proper distances apart to resist horses, cattle and other similar livestock. By contrast, the “local fence law” defines a “lawful fence” as either (i) a fence of four boards per four feet of height, spaced no farther part than twice the width of such boards, and fastened to posts not more than 12 feet apart with one stay, or (ii) a fence of four barbed wires supported by posts not more than 15 feet apart with one stay or 12 feet apart with no stays. Of course, in any county in Missouri, if one neighbor wants a more costly fence than described by statute, he is free build it, but must shoulder the entire financial responsibility of the additional costs.
Jerry Potocnik is an attorney in Blue Springs, Mo.