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: 10 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 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 to be entitled to them. If they do not meet these requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Squatters can be complete strangers or even neighbors who are trying to obtain title to land.
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, etc.), 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.
Read more about tenants at will here.
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 10 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 U.S., there are five distinct legal requirements that the squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Hostile – honest belief that they are the owner therefore 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 10 years.
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 terms mean.
“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 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 10 continuous years to qualify for adverse possession in Rhode Island. They cannot leave for several 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 help with 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 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 specific laws to remove 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, Rhode Island does 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 to remove squatters off the property. This begins with serving the squatter an eviction notice.
- Nonpayment of Rent – A landowner may issue a 5-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 to remain on the property. If the squatter does not pay the rent due by the end of the notice period and remains on the property, the landowner may proceed with the eviction process and file a “Complaint for Eviction of Nonpayment of Rent”.
- No Lease/End of Lease- If there is no lease or a tenant stays after their rental term has expired, a landowner may serve a notice to quit. The notice period depends on the type of tenancy. For week-to-week tenancies a 10-Day Notice to Quit may be issued, for month-to-month tenancies a 30-Day Notice to Quit may be issued and for year-to-year tenancies a 90-Day Notice shall be issued.
- Illegal Activity – No prior notice is needed for illegal activity and the landowner may immediately proceed with the eviction suit.
If an eviction is granted, a landowner must wait until the court has issued a Writ of Execution. This will be the squatters final notice to vacate, or the sheriff will forcibly remove them.
It is important for a landowner to 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.
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.
- Pay property taxes in a timely manner.
- 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.