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 Rhode Island
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Judicial eviction, starting with serving eviction notice
- Required Time of Occupation: 21 years of continuous occupation
- Color of Title: Not required, but may help adverse possession claim
- Property Taxes: Not required, but may help claim
Who is Considered a Squatter in Rhode Island?
A squatter is someone who chooses to occupy an abandoned, foreclosed, or unoccupied building or area of land without the lawful permission of the owner. This means that the person does not own or rent the property. Even so, squatting in the United States is legal and more common than you might think.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal offense, while squatting is usually civil in nature. However, once a landowner has established that the squatter isn’t welcome on the property, squatting can be treated like a criminal offense.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespasses might falsely claim that they have a right to be on the property. They can accomplish this by presenting false or fraudulent paperwork or documents to law enforcement. This is illegal.
- Squatters have rights, but they must meet the requirements for adverse possession in order to be entitled to them. If they do not meet these requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Many homeless people will try to take advantage of squatter’s rights in order to gain ownership of a property without paying rent or mortgage.
There are exceptions to the rule.
- If a squatter beautifies an abandoned or unoccupied property (either by removing debris, planting flowers, or otherwise making improvements), they could possibly avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who gains access to the property without 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, or tenants at sufferance, are tenants who will not 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 can 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. At this point, they are considered a criminal trespasser instead
Understanding Adverse Possession in Rhode Island
After a certain amount of time residing on a property, a squatter can gain legal ownership through the process of adverse possession. In Rhode Island, a squatter must possess the property continuously for a period of 21 years before they can make an adverse possession claim (R.I. Gen. Laws Ann. § 34-7-1, et seq). At this point, the squatter is no longer considered a criminal trespasser. Once an adverse possession claim has been made, the squatter has legal permission to remain on the property.
In the US, there are five distinct legal requirements that the squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Open & Notorious
If the squatters do not meet these five requirements, they do not have the grounds for adverse possession.
Let’s take a look at what each of these means.
“Hostile” doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous or violent. In the legal sense, hostile has three definitions.
- Simple occupation. This rule is followed by most states today. It defines ‘hostile’ as a 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 their use of the land or building is trespassing. They have to know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good faith mistake. Many states have a provision for squatters to believe that they do have a legal right to be on the property. This requires that the squatter make a good faith mistake in occupying the property, most often by relying on an invalid or incorrect deed. In other words, they are unaware of the property’s current legal status and are using the property “in good faith”.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser is physically present on the property and using the land as if they were an owner. This can be proven by documenting any efforts on the part of the squatter to beautify the land or perform regular maintenance.
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open & Notorious” means that it must be obvious to anyone that someone is squatting on the property. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that a squatter is there. They must not attempt to hide the fact that they are living there.
The squatter must be the only one possessing the land. They cannot share occupancy with other tenants, the landlord, or even other trespassers or squatters.
A squatter must reside on the land for a period of 21 continuous years in order to qualify for adverse possession in Rhode Island. They cannot leave for a number of weeks or months and then claim that time as part of their continuous occupation time frame.
Color of Title
You have probably come across the term ‘color of title’ while researching squatter’s rights. Color of Title simply means that someone has gained ownership of the property without it being ‘regular’. Most often, this means that they are missing one or more of the required registrations, legal documents, or memorials.
In Rhode Island, color of title is not a required component for an adverse possession claim. Having color of title can definitely help an adverse possession claim, but it is not required.
A squatter who has successfully completed an adverse possession claim would have color of title.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Rhode Island?
While some states require a squatter to pay property taxes in order to make an adverse possession case, Rhode Island is not one of them. If a squatter can prove that they have paid property taxes, it will certain help with an adverse possession claim, however.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Rhode Island
Rhode Island doesn’t have any laws specifically for getting squatters off of a property. Instead, most landowners who want to remove squatters will have to go through a judicial eviction process, which can be costly and time-consuming.
However, they do have a disability provision. If a landowner is legally disabled (they are underage, imprisoned, or legally incompetent), adverse possession claims against their properties can be postponed. In Rhode Island. They have 10 years after their disability is lifted (either they come of age, are released from prison, or regain competency) to dispute a claim and/or evict squatters from their land.
For all other cases, landowners will have to begin the process of a judicial eviction in order to get squatters off of their land. This begins with an eviction notice.
The most applicable eviction notice to serve to a squatter in Rhode Island is the Five-Day Notice to Pay Rent. This can be served after the squatter has been on the property for longer than 15 days. This notice must give the squatter an amount that they are expected to pay in order to remain on the property.
In most cases, the squatter won’t pay the amount. On the sixth day after the notice is served and no rent has been collected, the landowner can file an eviction with their county courts. A hearing will be scheduled in short order, and the squatter and the landowner will be summoned to appear.
If a landowner has gone through the property steps (and served the notice properly), most squatters will have no defense against their eviction. They might fight it in order to gain more time on the property, but ultimately most judges will rule in favor of the landowner.
Even after a successful eviction, a landowner must not take measures to remove the squatter from the property themselves. Physically removing the squatter, changing the locks, or shutting off the utilities are all illegal self-eviction acts that may open the landowner up to a lawsuit.
Instead, the landowner must wait until the Sheriff or Constable comes to remove the squatter with a court order. Only a law enforcement officer with a court order can legally remove squatters from the property after an eviction.
If there is personal property left behind by the squatter after the eviction, the landowner must move and store the property and allow the squatter proper time to retrieve it. They can be moved under the supervision of the sheriff and released to the custody of the sheriff. For the squatter to regain personal property, they must reimburse the landowner for all moving and storage costs before they can access their belongings.
It is important to call the sheriff if there is a squatting situation happening on your property. Local law enforcement can remove criminal trespassers, but squatting issues can only be handled by the sheriff or constable of your county.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters
- Inspect the property regularly
- 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 Rhode Island General Laws, Code § 34-7-1, et seq for more information.