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 Oklahoma
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Judicial eviction, beginning with an eviction notice
- Required Time of Occupation: 15 years of continuous possession
- Color of Title: Required – in particular, a Title from a tax assessor
- Property Taxes: Required for 5 consecutive years
Who is Considered a Squatter in Oklahoma?
A squatter is someone who chooses to occupy a foreclosed, unoccupied, or abandoned residential building or area of land without lawful permission. This means that the person doesn’t rent or own the property. Even so, squatting is legal in the United States and more common than you’d think.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting isn’t necessarily trespassing. While trespassing is a criminal offense, squatting is usually a civil matter. Once the landlord or property owner has established that the squatter is unwelcome, however, it can be treated like a criminal offense.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers might falsely claim a right to be on the property. They accomplish this by presenting false or fraudulent paperwork or other documents to the owner or to law enforcement. This is illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but they must meet the requirements for adverse possession to use them. If they do not meet these requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Many homeless people try to take advantage of squatters’ rights to gain ownership of a property without paying rent or mortgage.
There are exceptions to the rule;
- If a person beautifies an abandoned or unoccupied property (by removing debris, planting flowers, or making other improvements), they could possibly avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who gains access to the property without permission can be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use for squatters to begin the purpose of an adverse possession claim.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, otherwise known as ‘tenants at sufferance’, are tenants who refuse to leave the property when their lease has ended. In this situation, the tenant is responsible for continuing to pay rent at the existing rate and with the existing terms.
If the landlord chooses, they may continue to accept the rent without worrying about the legality of the occupancy. In this case, the tenant becomes a ‘tenant at will’. This means that they are only on the property at the will of the landlord. They can be evicted at any time without notice.
However, if the holdover tenant receives a notice to quit (or move out) and refuses to leave, they may be subject to a lawsuit for unlawful detainer. A holdover tenant will not be able to make an adverse possession claim if they have already been asked to leave the property. At this point, they are considered a criminal trespasser.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Oklahoma
A squatter can claim rights to the property after a certain time residing there. In Oklahoma, it takes 15 years of continuous possession for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (Okla. Stat. tit. 12 § 93, 94). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is not considered a criminal trespasser and has lawful permission to remain on the property.
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.
“Hostile” doesn’t necessarily mean violent or dangerous. In the legal sense, hostile can have three alternative 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 have to 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 has 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 legal status.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser is physically present on the property and treats it as if they are an owner. This can be established by documenting beautification efforts (as mentioned above), as well as maintenance or any measures taken to clean or maintain the property.
Open & Notorious Possession
It must be obvious to anyone that the squatter is residing on the property. They must not be trying to hide that they are living there. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that someone is squatting on the property.
The squatter must possess the land exclusively. This means that the trespasser cannot share possession with strangers, the owner, or other tenants or squatters.
The squatter must reside on the property for the entire 15 years required for an adverse possession claim in Oklahoma. They cannot leave for weeks or months, return later, and then claim the time they were absent as part of their continuous possession period. The time the squatter resides on the property must be uninterrupted.
Color of Title
You’ve probably come across the term ‘color of title’ during your research into squatter’s rights. Color of title simply means that the ownership of the property is not ‘regular’. The owner doesn’t have one or more of the legal documents or proper registrations.
In Oklahoma, a squatter must have a specific color of title in order to make an adverse possession claim. They are required to have a Title from a tax assessor, which they can only receive if they have paid taxes on the property for 5 consecutive years.
A squatter who has won an adverse possession case would also have color of title.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Oklahoma?
In Oklahoma, squatters do have to pay property taxes in order to make an adverse possession claim. A title from a tax assessor is required to make a claim, and a squatter can only obtain a title from a tax assessor after paying property taxes for five consecutive years on a property where the ‘legal owner’ isn’t paying taxes.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Oklahoma
Oklahoma doesn’t have specific laws for the removal of squatters from a property. In order to get squatters to leave if they refuse through civil methods, a landowner must file a judicial eviction in order to have them removed.
However, there is a provision in Oklahoma law for landowners with a legal disability. If a landowner is disabled (either they are underage, imprisoned, or legally incompetent), they have two years after their disability is lifted (they come of age, are released from prison, or regain sanity). This means that while a disabled landlord is ‘legally’ disabled, no adverse possession claim can be leveled against their land.
Otherwise, a landowner must go through the Oklahoma eviction process in order to evict squatters. This begins with the eviction notice.
If the squatter is violent, a danger to themselves, others, or the property, or is using illegal drugs, the landlord can issue an immediate termination notice. After this notice is issued, the landowner can go straight to the county court and file the eviction.
However, if the squatter isn’t violent or doing anything illegal, a landowner should instead rely on a Five-Day Notice to Pay Rent. This notice should specify an amount that the squatter must pay if they are intent on remaining on the property. Most of the time, a squatter will not come up with the money in five days (or will not be interested in paying at all).
If they do not pay within these five days, the landowner can go to the county court and file an eviction. After this, a hearing will be scheduled. Unless the squatter has a good defense against the eviction or a legitimate legal reason to be on the property, the judgment will most likely be in favor of the landowner.
Even after a successful eviction, a landowner must not take any measures to self-evict the squatter. They cannot physically remove the tenant, change the locks, or shut off the utilities. These are always illegal actions and can open the landowner up to a lawsuit.
Instead, the landlord must wait for the official court order to be processed. After this, a law enforcement officer can actually evict the squatter.
If there is personal property left behind after the squatter has been removed, the landowner must wait 30 days before they can dispose of it. During these 30 days, the landowner must send the squatter notice to retrieve their property, and it must be stored in a safe place. If the squatter does not collect their property after this time is up, the landowner can dispose of the property or sell it as they see fit.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Oklahoma
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Always pay your property taxes.
- Make sure that the property is secured. Block all entrances, close all windows, and lock every door.
- Post “No Trespassing” signs on the property, especially if it’s currently unoccupied.
- Serve written notice as soon as you notice that squatters are present.
- Offer to rent the property to the squatters.
- Call the sheriff (not the local law enforcement) to remove squatters from the premises if they do not leave.
- Hire a lawyer. You may need to take legal action to remove squatters, and having the correct legal advice is critical for every step of the journey.
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 Oklahoma Statutes Title 12 § 93, 94 for more information.