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 Massachusetts
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Standard civil eviction
- Required Time of Occupation: 20 years of continuous possession
- Color of Title: Not required
- Property Taxes: Not required
Who is Considered a Squatter in Massachusetts?
A squatter is someone who occupied an abandoned, foreclosed, or otherwise abandoned residential building or area of land without lawful permission. This means that they do not rent or own the property. Still, squatting is common in the United States.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal offense. Squatting, on the other hand, is usually civil in nature. However, squatting can be treated like a criminal behavior if the property owner has established that the squatter is unwelcome.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers may falsely claim a right to be on the property. They may do this by presenting false papers or fraudulent deeds to the owner or law enforcement. This is illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but they must fulfill the requirements for adverse possession first. If they do not meet the requirements outlined below, they can be arrested as criminal trespassing.
- Squatters can be complete strangers or even your neighbors who want to claim title to the land.
- Adverse possession claims are not applicable to nonprofit land, conservations, parks, recreation, water protection or wildlife protection purposes.
There are exceptions to this rule:
- If a person plants flowers, removes debris, or otherwise beautifies, they may be able to avoid prosecution for criminal trespass. This is true for both residential and industrial properties.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who accesses the property without authorization or permission may be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use for squatters to begin the process of an adverse possession claim.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, also referred to as tenants at sufferance, are tenants who remain on a property after their lease has ended. They are fundamentally different from squatters and must be dealt with in a different way entirely.
In this situation, the tenant may continue to pay rent at the existing rate and terms. If the landlord chooses to accept this without worrying about the legality of the occupancy, the tenant then becomes a ‘tenant at will’. This means that they are on the property ‘at the will’ of the landlord and they can be evicted at any time without notice.
Read more about tenants at will here.
Otherwise, if a holdover tenant receives a notice to quit (or move out), they must leave or be subjected to a lawsuit for unlawful detainer. A holdover tenant will not be able to make an adverse possession claim if they have been told to leave. Thereafter, they are considered a criminal trespasser.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Massachusetts
A squatter can claim rights to a property after residing there for a certain amount of time. In Massachusetts, it takes 20 years of continuous possession for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (MA CC 260 § 21). When a squatter makes an adverse possession claim, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, they are no longer a criminal trespasser and they have lawful permission to remain on the property.
Massachusetts does have a special land registration system where if there is a question of title, a landowner can contact the Land Court which investigates the true title. The Land Court has authority to issue a new certificate of title and once it is registered in the Land Court, the property cannot be adversely possessed.
In the U.S., there are five distinct legal requirements that a squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. 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.
If these five requirements are not met by the squatter, then they do not have grounds for adverse possession. Let’s take a look at what each of these requirements mean.
“Hostile” doesn’t necessarily mean violent or dangerous. In the legal sense, hostile can have three definitions.
- Simple Occupation. This rule is followed by most states today. Here, ‘hostile’ is defined 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 is aware that his or her use of the property is trespassing. They must know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good Faith Mistake. A few states choose to follow this rule instead. Here, the trespasser must 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 legal status.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser is physically present on the property. They must treat it as if they were an owner. This means that they can beautify the property or otherwise improve it. Presenting documentation of any regular maintenance or clean-up efforts can prove actual possession.
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open & Notorious” means that the occupation must be obvious to anyone. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that there is a squatter living on the property. They must not be attempting to hide it.
The trespasser must possess the land exclusively. This means that they cannot share possession with strangers, other squatters, tenants, or the owner themselves.
The squatter or trespasser must reside on the property for 20 uninterrupted years to make an adverse possession claim. They cannot leave for weeks or months, regain control of the property, and try to count that time into their adverse possession claim.
Color of Title
You’ve probably come across the term ‘color of title’ in your research into squatter’s rights. To have color of title simply means that someone owns the property without the ownership being ‘regular’. They may lack some documents or legal registrations that are usually included.
In some states, having color of title is required for adverse possession. Elsewhere, it might reduce the continuous possession time required to make a claim. Unfortunately, in Massachusetts, color of title will not decrease the possession time.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Massachusetts?
While some other states require a squatter to pay property taxes, Massachusetts isn’t one of them. Squatters don’t necessarily need to pay property taxes but it does show as a record with the court.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Massachusetts
Massachusetts does not have a law in place specifically for removing squatters and is one of the only states that does not have disability tolling for adverse possession. Throughout most of the state, a squatter must be removed through the standard civil eviction process as if they were a regular tenant. (The exception to this rule is when a property falls under the Boston Housing Authority and the squatter is creating problems).
There are several different types of evictions in Massachusetts:
- 14-Day Notice to Quit – Rent is considered late the day after it’s due; however, late fees or interest cannot be charged until 30 days after its due. The landowner may issue a notice to quit before filing a formal eviction suit with the court.
- 30-Day Notice to Quit – For tenants who have stayed longer than their lease term or if there was no lease to begin with, a landowner may issue a notice to quit before filing for an eviction.
- 7-Day Notice to Quit – Although the law doesn’t specifically state how much written notice is needed for illegal activity, it is customary to issue at least seven days’ notice to quit before proceeding with an eviction.
To begin the eviction process, the landowner shall file a Summons and Complaint with the court, which requires a small fee. After this is served to the squatter by the sheriff’s office a hearing date is set. If the judge grants the eviction a Writ of Execution shall be issued after the judgement. The writ is the squatters final notice to leave and allows 48 hours for the squatter to vacate before being forcibly removed by the sheriff.
It’s incredibly important that the landowner does not attempt to engage in self-eviction procedures. Actions such as changing the locks or turning off utilities to the property are illegal. It can lead to a lawsuit against the landowner if they take these actions. Always remember to act within the law to remove squatters from your properties.
Tips for Protecting Yourself From Squatters in Massachusetts
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Secure the property (block all entrances, close every window, and lock all the doors).
- Put up “No Trespassing” signs on the property. This is especially important if the property is currently unoccupied.
- Pay property taxes in a timely manner.
- Serve written notice as soon as you realize squatters are present.
- Offer to rent the property to squatters.
- Call the sheriff (not the local law enforcement) to remove squatters from the premises if they refuse to leave.
- Hire a lawyer. Some cases might require legal action, and having legal counsel on your side will help you take the steps you need to take.
It’s important to arm yourself with the right legal knowledge to prevent someone from making an adverse possession claim on your property. Make sure you refer to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260 §21 for more information.