Squatting is when a person finds an abandoned or vacant property and moves in without discussing it with the property owner. It sounds like breaking and entering – except sometimes it is legal.
Quick Facts for Alaska
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Standard eviction process; beyond that, court
- Required Time of Occupation: 7 years; 10 years in good faith
- Color of Title: Required
- Property Taxes: Not required
Who is Considered a Squatter in Alaska?
A squatter is someone who occupies an unoccupied, foreclosed, or abandoned building or area of land without lawful permission. This usually means that the person does not own or rent the property. Even so, squatting in the United States is common and legal.
Isn’t That Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. While trespassing is a criminal offense, squatting is usually civil in nature. Squatter can be treated as a criminal offense if the landlord or property owner has established that the person in question is unwelcome.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers may make fraudulent claims in order to remain on the property. If they present false or fabricated paperwork to the owners or the police. This is, however, illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but they can be arrested as criminal trespassers if they do not fulfill the requirements for adverse possession.
- Many homeless people attempt to take advantage of squatter’s rights to gain ownership of a property without having to pay rent or a mortgage.
There are exceptions to the rule, however.
- If a person beautifies (plants flowers, removes debris, cleans up or performs routine maintenance) unoccupied and abandoned residential or industrial property, they may be able to avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- In case of a legitimate emergency, a person who accessed the property without authorization or permission may be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use for squatters to begin the adverse possession process.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants (or tenants at sufferance) or tenants who remain on a property after their lease or rental contract has ended. The tenant in this situation is still responsible for paying rent at the existing rate and terms. The landlord can choose to accept this without challenging the occupancy.
If the tenant is served with a notice to quit (or move out) and they refuse to leave, they can be sued by the landlord for unlawful detainer. A holdover tenant will not be able to claim adverse possession if they have already been told to leave. At this point, they become a criminal trespasser instead.
If the landlord does choose to continue to accept rent, the tenant is considered a ‘tenant at will’. This means that the tenant is on the property solely at the discretion of the landlord, and they can be evicted at any time without notice.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Alaska
A squatter can claim rights to the property after a certain time residing there. In Alaska, a squatter must have occupied a property for 7 years (with color of title) to claim adverse possession (AL Statute 09.45.052). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they may be able to gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is no longer a criminal trespasser and has legal permission to remain on the property.
In the US, five distinct legal requirements must be met by squatter before an adverse possession claim can be made. The occupation has to be:
- Open & Notorious
If these five elements are not fulfilled by the squatter, they cannot begin an adverse possession claim.
In Alaska, a squatter must also claim the sixth requirement, ‘color of title’. Let’s look at what each of these means.
The legal definition of ‘hostile’ does not always mean violent or aggressive. Int his case, it can have three different definitions:
- Simple occupation. This rule is followed by most states today. It defines ‘hostile’ as the occupation of the land – with or without the knowledge that it belongs to someone else.
- Awareness of trespassing. For this rule, the trespasser must be aware that they are trespassing by using the property. This means that the trespasser has to know that they have no legal right to the property.
- Good faith mistake. A few states include this rule. It means that the trespasser must have made a mistake in occupying the property in the first place. They either don’t know that it belongs to someone else, or they have an incorrect deed and don’t know it. In other words, the squatter must be using the property “in good faith” and be unaware of the property’s current legal status. In Alaska, if the squatter is occupying the property based on a good faith mistake, they have must have lived on the property for 10 years rather than 7.
The actual possession requirement means that the trespasser must actually be physically present on the property. They must possess it and treat it as if they were an owner. The trespasser can attempt to establish actual possession by documenting their efforts to maintain the property. They must show that they have made improvements, repairs, or beautified the property by landscaping or cleaning up debris.
Open & Notorious Possession
Under this requirement, the trespasser must not have been attempting to hide their occupation from anyone. This means that it must be obvious to anyone that they are staying there, including any property owners who make a reasonable effort to investigate. A squatter cannot claim adverse possession if they attempt to hide that they live there.
The trespasser must be the only one possessing the land. This means that they cannot share the property with strangers, other squatters, other tenants, or the owner.
To be able to claim adverse possession, the squatter must reside on the property for an uninterrupted period of time. This means that during the 7 to 10 years that the squatter must occupy the property in Alaska, they have to have been present the entire time. They cannot leave for a period of time and then return to the property; if they do, the time period must be reset.
Color of Title
In Alaska, squatters must have color of title to claim adverse possession. You’ve probably come across this term numerous time while looking up squatter’s rights. In general, color of title means that someone has ownership of the property without possessing it in a ‘regular’ way. This means that they don’t have one or more of the legal documents or the property is not properly registered.
A squatter can claim color of title after completing an adverse possession claim. Some states, such as Alaska, have certain rules that work with this to make sure that landowners may retain possession of the land unless the squatter already has reason to believe that they can possess it.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Alaksa?
A number of states require squatters to prove that they have paid property taxes before they can claim adverse possession. This is not the case in Alaska.
On the other hand, if a squatter has paid property taxes for the time they have occupied the property, it can be considered proof that they have a right to claim the property (Alaska Nat. Bank v Linck 559 P.2d 1049). If they’ve paid property taxes for the last 10 years, it makes a very strong case for adverse possession (AL Statute 09.10.030). You can avoid this by always paying your own property taxes.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Alaska
In Alaska, you must go through the eviction process to remove squatters from your property. There are a few different processes that you can take, starting with the type of eviction notice that you serve.
Note that in Alaska, self-eviction is illegal. This means that you cannot take any actions to remove the squatters or trespassers before there is a legal process. If the landlord takes any of these actions (such as shutting off utilities, changing locks, threatening squatters, or removing their possessions), the squatter will be able to sue them.
The easiest and fastest way to get squatters off of your property requires them to have caused damage in excess of $400. If they have done this much damage to your property, you have grounds to serve them a 24-hour eviction notice.
However, there are varying notice lengths for other types of eviction notices that may be applicable in your situation.
- Eviction notice for nonpayment of rent: 7-day notice
- Eviction for criminal activity/not paying utilities: 5-day notice
- Eviction for all other reasons: 10-day notice
Regardless of which type of eviction notice you are serving them with, it is important that you serve it via a process server or in person. You may also mail the eviction notice via registered mail or the regular post, but when you mail the notice it extends all deadlines listed above by 72 hours.
If the squatters don’t leave, a court date will be set. Most of the time, squatters don’t show up to court – if this is the case, the judge will rule in your favor.
At this point, landowners will need to obtain a Writ of Assistance so that law enforcement officials can remove the squatters from the property. The local police will not enforce this order, so it is left to the sheriff or other law enforcement official to physically remove the squatters.
If they leave any personal items behind, the landlord can leave them on the property or in a storage area for 15 days. After a period of 15 days, the landlord can dispose of the property as they see fit.
It’s not as difficult to remove squatters from your properties in Alaska as it might be in some other states. Even the legal process is faster.
If you need squatters removed from your property (via the Writ of Assistance), you should call on the Sheriff only. Local police and sheriffs have different jurisdictions and work for different public sectors. If there is a criminal trespass occurring, the local police can help you remove the trespasser. But for squatters and the legal process, the sheriff is the only one who can help.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Alaska
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Make sure that the property is secured. Block all entrances and lock doors and windows.
- Put up “No Trespassing” signs on the property, especially if it is currently unoccupied.
- As soon as you realize squatters are present, serve them with written notice.
- Offer to rent the property to squatters.
- Call the sheriff (not the local police) to remove squatters from the premises if they do not leave and cannot legally prove that they can be there.
- Hire a lawyer in case you are required to take legal action to remove squatters from your property.
Squatters are a landlord’s worst nightmare. Make sure to arm yourself with the correct legal knowledge so that you can prevent someone from making an adverse possession claim on your property.