Who is Considered a Squatter in Connecticut?
A squatter is someone who is occupying an abandoned, foreclosed, or unoccupied building (usually residential) or area of land without lawful permission. This means the person does not own or rent the property. Despite this, squatting in the United States is actually legal and quite common.
Isn’t That Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal offense, while squatting is usually civil in nature. However, squatting can be treated as criminal behavior if the landlord or property owner has established that the individual in question is unwelcome.
Keep the following in mind:
- Unlike in other states, in Connecticut, landlords/property owners must notify those who are attempting an adverse possession claim that they are interrupting the process of the claim. Other states do not require landlords/property owners to “say” that it is illegal for the person to be there. This makes Connecticut’s squatters rights unique. In order to prevent a squatter from acquiring the property through adverse possession, the notification of interruption must take place and be documented within the land records of the local county.
- Squatters or trespassers may falsely claim a right to be on the property, for example, by presenting false or fraudulent papers to the owner. This is illegal.
- Even though squatters do have rights, if they do not fulfill the requirements for adverse possession, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers. Many people take advantage of squatters rights to gain ownership of a property without having to pay rent or a mortgage.
There are exceptions to the rule:
- If a person beautifies (plants flowers, removes debris, etc.) unoccupied and abandoned residential or industrial property, one could possibly avoid prosecution for trespass.
- In the 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 being used in order for squatters to begin the process of an adverse possession claim.
When is a Property Considered Abandoned?
Squatters are typically homeless individuals who have set up their residence in an abandoned property. In Connecticut, a property is considered abandoned when the owner has declared, in writing, that they have vacated the premises and do not intend on returning. A property can also be considered abandoned if property taxes have not been paid for one year or more, or the municipality has determined the property to be abandoned as per local ordinances.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, sometimes referred to as tenants at sufferance, are tenants who stay on a property after their lease has ended. In this situation, the tenant is responsible for paying rent at the existing rate and terms. The landlord may accept such without admitting the legality of the occupancy. If a holdover tenant does not leave after a notice to quit (move out), then they will be subject to a lawsuit for unlawful detainer. A holdover tenant will not be able to claim adverse possession if they have already been told to leave. They will be considered a criminal trespasser.
If the landlord continues to accept rent, then the tenant becomes a tenant at will — meaning the tenant is on the property “at the landlord’s will” and can be evicted at any time without notice.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Connecticut
A squatter can claim rights to the property after a certain time of residing there. In Connecticut, it takes 15 years of continuous occupation for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (CGS § 52-575; Whitney v.Turmel 180 Conn. 147 (1980)). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is not a criminal trespasser and has lawful permission to remain on the property. Adverse use in Connecticut is also defined as having enjoyment of the property that continues in an uninterrupted fashion.
In the US, five distinct legal requirements must be met by the squatter before an adverse possession claim can be made. The occupation must be:
- Open & notorious
If these five elements are not fulfilled by the squatter, then they do not have grounds for adverse possession. Let’s take a look at what each of these means.
(Note that adverse possession does not apply to certain types of properties, including investor-owned water companies, non-profit organization properties, and lands under conservation (CGS § 47-27(b)).)
“Hostile” doesn’t mean the squatter broke down your door and bolted in guns blazing like SEAL Team Six… In the legal sense, hostile has three definitions:
- Simple occupation. This rule (followed by most states today) defines “hostile” as the mere occupation of the land. The trespasser doesn’t have to know that the land belongs to someone else.
- Awareness of trespassing. This rule requires that the trespasser be aware that his or her use of the property amounts to trespassing (meaning the trespasser has no legal right to be on the property).
- Good faith mistake. A few states follow this rule, including Connecticut. This requires the trespasser to have made an innocent good faith mistake in occupying the property in the first place, such as by relying on an invalid or incorrect deed. In other words, the squatter was using the property “in good faith” and was unaware of the property’s current legal status.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser actually possess the property (be physically present) and treat it as if they were an owner. This can be established by documenting the trespasser’s efforts to maintain and make improvements to the property. The beautification of the premises, such as landscaping (as mentioned beforehand), would be an example of actual possession of the land.
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open and notorious” means that it must be obvious to anyone — including a property owner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate — that someone is squatting on the property. This means the squatter is not trying to hide the fact that they live there.
The trespasser must possess the land exclusively. That means the trespasser cannot share possession with strangers, the owner, or other tenants.
The squatter must also reside on the property for an uninterrupted amount of time. That means the trespasser cannot give up use of the property, return to it later, and try to count the time that the property was abandoned as part of the “continuous” possession time period. As stated previously, 15 years of continuous occupation are required for adverse possession.
Color of Title
When looking up squatters rights, you’ve probably come across the term “color of title.” Color of title means ownership of property by a person in possession without being “regular,” such as not having one or more of the legal memorials or documents registered, or not properly registered. A squatter can claim color of title after successfully completing an adverse possession claim. If possession is acquired without color of title, then the squatter will only have rights to the area of land actually possessed, meaning they are limited to the section of property they have actually occupied.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Connecticut?
In many states, squatters must be able to prove they have paid property taxes over a number of years. This is not the case in Connecticut.
As long as the squatters have been living in and maintaining the property as their own for 15 years or more, then they have the right to claim adverse possession.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Connecticut
As mentioned beforehand, in Connecticut, landlords/property owners must notify squatters that they are interrupting the process of their adverse possession claim. Many states set a period of time for response. However, no such period exists in Connecticut, as the state considers the required 15 years of residence long enough to challenge a hostile occupation.
Although, if the landowner is under a legal “disability” (is a minor, legally incompetent, or imprisoned), then they can defend their title to the land beyond the usual 15 years. In this case, the person has 5 years after the disability is removed (i.e. the child becomes an adult, the person is returned to sanity, or the offender is released from prison) to assert their right to the land.
To protect yourself from this situation, it is essential that you serve written notice to any squatters that may be present, stating that you contest the actions of adverse possession. This eliminates squatters’ ability to make a claim now or in the future on that property. However, this notice does not serve as an eviction.
You must follow the standard eviction process afterward in order to legally remove the squatters from the premises.
In Connecticut, a notice to quit must be served five days before the date specified in the notice as the last day a squatter can remain on the premises (CGS § 47a-23). In the notice, you must state the reason for wanting the person to move. If the squatter is a tenant whose lease has expired, you do not have to cite any requirements from the rental agreement. You only need to state that the person is illegally residing on your property.
A squatter must respond to the summons and complaint by filing an appearance with the court within two days after the return date. If the squatter does not file an answer within the two-day period, then you can file a motion for judgment based on “failure to plead.” If the squatter fails to plead within three days after receiving the motion by clerk, the court must enter judgment against the squatter (CGS § 47a-26a). If the squatter files an answer or enters a plea, a trial must be held. (CGS § 47a-26d).
After the trial, judgment is entered either in favor of or against the landlord/property owner. If judgment is entered for the landlord/property owner, you must ask the court for an order or execution requiring the squatter to move. After the court issues the execution, it must be given to a local sheriff for proper service. The sheriff is required to use reasonable efforts to locate and notify the squatter of the date and time of the eviction.
After a reasonable time, the sheriff can physically remove the squatter’s possessions onto the street (CGS § 47a-26d). If the squatter has still not moved out, then the sheriff may forcibly remove the squatter from the premises. Connecticut law calls for a “five-day stay of execution.” This means the judgment of execution made by the court is prohibited from being carried out for 5 days after it is made.
The squatter also has the right to apply for an additional stay and the court may order one for up to six months (CGS § 47a-39).
(Note it’s important to call the sheriff and NOT the police. The difference between the sheriff and police is purely jurisdictional, but also critical. The police work for localities (towns and cities) while sheriffs work for counties. Do not call the local police with a property matter unless you are certain there is a criminal trespasser on your property. The police can remove trespassers immediately — squatters, not so much.)
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Connecticut
- Inspect the property regularly
- Secure the property (i.e. block entrances, close all windows, lock all doors, etc.)
- Put up “No Trespassing” signs on the property, especially if it is currently unoccupied
- Serve written notice as soon as you realize squatters are present
- Offer to rent the property to squatters
- Call the sheriff to remove squatters from premises if they do not leave
- Hire a lawyer — in some cases, you may need to file a lawsuit to remove the squatter from your premises
Squatters are a landlord’s worst nightmare. Make sure you arm yourself with the right legal knowledge to prevent someone from making an adverse possession claim on your property.