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 Georgia
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Remove as trespassers or serve eviction notice
- Required Time of Occupation: 20 years; 7 with color of title
- Color of Title: Not required
- Main Topic: Not required
Who is Considered a Squatter in Georgia?
A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned, foreclosed or unoccupied residential building (or area of land) without lawful permission. This means that they don’t rent or own the property. Despite this, it’s common for squatting to occur in the United States.
Isn’t That Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal offense, whereas squatting is usually a civil matter. If the landlord or property owner has established that the squatter is unwelcome, however, squatting can be treated as a criminal offense.
Keep the following in mind.
- Squatters and trespassers may present false or fraudulent papers to prove that they have a claim to the property, or a right to remain there. If they present these papers to the landowner or law enforcement, it is illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but only if they fulfill the requirements for an adverse possession claim. If they don’t, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
There are exceptions to the rule:
- If a person beautifies the property (either by planting flowers, cleaning up, or making improvements, they might be able to avoid prosecution for trespass.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, someone who accessed the property without authorization may be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use for squatters to begin the process to claim adverse possession.
What about Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, sometimes referred to as ‘tenants at sufferance’, are tenants who choose to remain on a property after their lease or rental agreement has ended. In this situation, the tenant is responsible for continuing to pay the rent at the existing rate and with the existing terms. The landlord can accept this without questioning the occupancy.
If a holdover tenant doesn’t leave after they receive a notice to quit (or move out), they may be sued for unlawful detainer. If they have been asked to leave, a holdover tenant will not be able to make an adverse possession claim. Instead of being a squatter, they are then considered a criminal trespasser.
If a landlord chooses to accept rent from a holdover tenant and doesn’t issue any notice, they become a ‘tenant at will’. This means that they remain on the property ‘at the will’ of the landlord, and they may be evicted at any time without notice.
Read more about tenants at-will here.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Georgia
After a certain amount of time residing on the property, a squatter may be able to claim rights to the property. In Georgia, it takes 20 years of continuous possession to begin a valid adverse possession claim, or 7 years with color of title (GAC Tit. § 44-5-161, et seq). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can obtain legal ownership of the property.
At this point, the squatter is not a criminal trespasser; instead, they have lawful permission to remain on the property.
In the United States, there are five distinct legal requirements that must be met by the squatter before an adverse possession claim can be made. The occupation must be:
- Hostile – without permission and against the right of the true owner.
- Actual – exercising control over the real property.
- Open & Notorious – using the property as the owner would and not hiding his/her occupancy.
- Exclusive – in the possession of the individual occupying the real property alone.
- Continuous – staying on the property for 20 years (or 7 with color of title).
If these requirements are not met, the squatter won’t be able to make an adverse possession claim. Let’s take a look at what each of these terms mean.
In the legal sense used here, ‘hostile’ doesn’t mean violent or dangerous. As a matter of face, the trespasser doesn’t have to have any type of negative intent at all, regardless of their threat to the interests of the property owner. Instead, there are three definitions that can be used for ‘hostile’ in this sense.
- Simple Occupation. This rule is followed by most states today and only requires that the trespasser is using the land. They don’t necessarily have to know that the land belongs to someone else.
- Awareness of Trespassing. This rule states that trespasser must be aware that they have no legal right to be on the property. They have to know that they are trespassing.
- Good Faith Mistake. Some states have a provision in place that allows for trespassers to attempt to obtain adverse possession if they have a faulty document or have made an honest mistake. If they have documents that are not valid but they believe, in good faith, that they are, this might be enough for them to begin a claim.
Actual possession requires that a trespasser is physically present on the property and are treating it as if they were an owner. An easy way to establish actual possession is to document efforts to maintain, improve, or beautify the property (as mentioned above).
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open and Notorious” simply means that it must be obvious to anyone – even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate – that squatters are living on the property. Hiding their occupation makes squatters ineligible for adverse possession.
The squatter must possess the land exclusively. They cannot share possession with strangers, the owner, other tenants, or even other squatters.
The squatter must reside at the property for an uninterrupted period of time. This means that the trespasser cannot leave for weeks or months and then return, claiming that they have lived there the entire time. In Georgia, they must reside on the property for 20 continuous years to begin an adverse possession claim (or 7 with color of title).
Color of Title
When looking up squatter’s rights, you’ve undoubtedly come across the term ‘color of title’. This essential means ownership of a property without one or more of the proper documents or legal registrations. The possession isn’t ‘regular’. If the trespasser has a reasonable color of title claim to the property, they must live there continuously for 7 years instead of the standard 20 years.
A squatter can claim color of title after successfully completing an adverse possession claim.
Similarly, some states require squatters to pay property taxes to make an adverse possession claim. Georgia doesn’t have such a requirement, so squatters do not have to pay property taxes in Georgia for adverse possession claims.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Georgia
In some cases, squatters can be removed as trespassers. However, if they meet the criteria for adverse possession, the situation gets a little more complicated.
In most cases, squatters who don’t meet the adverse possession criteria will need to be evicted.
To begin the process of removing a squatter the owner will need to start the eviction process. There are eviction notices an owner can issue to the squatter/tenant such as nonpayment of rent or illegal activity. Georgia doesn’t specify time how much time the notice must specify, it can be as little as 24 hours or as many as 60 days. Whatever time limit the owner chooses to issue, the squatter/tenant must abide by or the owner may file an eviction lawsuit after the time has expired. The eviction process can take anywhere from a few weeks to much longer if the squatter challenges the eviction.
In Georgia, a landowner who has won an eviction case will need to request a Writ of Possession which gives the squatter 7 days to vacate. Once the notice period has passed the sheriff or constable has the authority to remove the squatters from the property. It is important to note that self-eviction is illegal in Georgia.
Read more about evictions in Georgia here and download our FREE eviction notice form template.
In Georgia, if a true owner is a minor, has a disability or is imprisoned, the time for the owner to challenge the adverse possession doesn’t begin until the landowner’s legal disability is dropped. This can mean that they come of age, regain sanity, or are released from prison.
If the squatter leaves on their own, there is no guidance on what to do with any personal property left behind. It’s a good idea to hold onto it for a reasonable amount of time and to work to return it if possible.
If the squatter is removed by the sheriff, any personal property left behind is considered abandoned. The landowner doesn’t need to make any effort to return it and can sell or dispose of it as they see fit.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Georgia
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Pay all property tax in a timely manner.
- Make sure that the property is secured. Block all entrances, close all doors, and make sure that all doors and windows are locked.
- Post ‘No Trespassing’ signs on the property. This is especially important if it is unoccupied.
- Serve squatters with written notice as soon as you realize that they are there.
- Offer to rent the property to the squatters.
- Call the sheriff (not the local police) to remove squatters from the premises if they do not leave.
- Hire a lawyer. You might need to file an eviction with the court if the squatters refuse to leave, and it’s always good to have legal counsel on your side before taking any actions.
Squatters have different rights in different states. Make sure you refer to Georgia Code Title 44. Property § 44-5-160- §44-5-177 for more information.