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.
Who is Considered a Squatter?
A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned, foreclosed or unoccupied building or area of land without lawful permission. This means that they do not rent or own the property they are occupying. Despite this, squatting is common and legal 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.
- Many homeless people will take advantage of squatter’s rights in order to gain ownership of a property without having to pay rent or a mortgage.
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 in order 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 not squatters and must be dealt with in a different way.
In the situation, the tenant must 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 only on the property at the will of the landlord and can be evicted at any time without notice.
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. Instead, they are considered a criminal trespasser.
Understanding Adverse Possession
A squatter can claim rights to a property after residing there for a certain amount of time. In Missouri, it takes 10 years of continuous possession for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (MO Rev. Stat. § 516.010, et seq). When a squatter makes an adverse possession claim, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, they have lawful permission to remain on the property and are no longer considered a criminal trespasser.
In the US, there are five distinct legal requirements that a squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Open & Notorious
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 means.
Despite what you might think, “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 simple occupation of the land. The squatter 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. They have to know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good faith mistake. A few states choose to follow this alternate rule. Here, the trespasser has to have made an innocent good faith mistake in occupying the property. This can mean that they are relying on an invalid or incorrect deed. In other words, the squatter must be using the property “in good faith” and be unaware of the property’s legal status.
Actual possession means that the squatter is physically present on the property and treats it as if they are an owner. This can be established through the documentation of any beautification efforts, maintenance, or other measures taken to improve the area.
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open & Notorious” means that it must be obvious to anyone that someone is squatting on the property. Even a property owner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that there is a squatter on the property. They must not be trying to hide their occupation of the property.
The trespasser must possess the land exclusively. This means that they cannot share the property with the owner, other squatters, strangers, or tenants.
The squatter or trespasser must reside on the property for the entire 10 years required for an adverse possession claim. They cannot leave for any significant amount of time (weeks or months), and then return and claim that they have lived there the entire time. That squatter’s occupation must be uninterrupted.
Color of Title
You’ve probably come across the term ‘color of title’ during your research into squatter’s rights. This simply means that the ownership of the property is not ‘regular’ – the owner is missing one or more of the correct legal documents or registrations required for a normal ownership. Some states require color of title for an adverse possession claim, but Missouri is not one of them.
While having color of title may help an adverse possession claim along, it does not reduce the standard 10 years of required occupation time. It is also not required in the state of Missouri.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes?
Some states require squatters to pay property taxes in order to make an adverse possession claim. Other states will reduce the required continuous possession time if the squatter is paying property taxes.
In Missouri, squatters are not required to pay property taxes. Doing so will not reduce the required continuous possession time, either. However, it certainly won’t hurt the case if the squatter pays property taxes.
How to Get Rid of Squatters
Missouri doesn’t have any special laws that make removing squatters quick and easy. They do, however, have provisions for disabled landowners.
An adverse possession claim can be delayed if the landowner has a legal ‘disability’. Here, that amounts to being under the age of 18, being imprisoned, or being considered legally incompetent. For three years after their disability is lifted (either they come of age, are released from prison, or regain competency), they can reclaim their property or dispute an adverse possession claim.
The maximum amount of time that an adverse possession claim can be delayed is 21 years.
Otherwise, to get rid of squatters in Missouri, you’ll need to legally evict them. The most common eviction cause (and the most relevant to squatters) is a failure to pay rent. In this case, the landowner can serve the squatter with a Demand for Rent, which may or may not give them a certain amount of time to pay an amount of money to stay.
Otherwise, you may be able to issue a Ten-Day Notice to Vacate. This is applicable if there are illegal activities (besides trespassing) happening on the property, or if the rental unit is seriously damaged.
After these ten days have expired (or after a reasonable amount of time has passed after a Demand for Rent), a landowner can file an eviction. The squatter may choose to dispute the eviction in order to remain on the property longer, but most of the time the ruling will be in the favor of the landowner.
After the eviction is successful, the landlord must not try to self-evict the squatter. Measures such as changing the locks or turning off the utilities are illegal and can open the landowner up to lawsuits. Only a law enforcement officer can remove the squatter from the property.
If the squatter leaves behind any personal property, the landowner must send them a notice of their intention to dispose of the property. This can be sent to their last known address. After ten days, the landowner can dispose of the property as they see fit if they do not hear from the squatter.
Please note that only the sheriff can help you deal with squatters. The local police can remove an illegal trespasser, but squatters are out of their jurisdiction. Always rely on the sheriff rather than the local law enforcement to help you with a squatting situation.
Tips for Protecting Yourself From Squatters
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Secure the property (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 that squatters are present.
- 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. In some cases, you may need to take legal action to get a squatter off of your property. Having legal counsel on your side to make sure that you are always acting within the law can be helpful.
Squatters are a land owner’s worst nightmare. Make sure that you arm yourself with the right legal knowledge to prevent someone from making an adverse possession claim on your property.