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 Tennessee
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Filing a judicial eviction (i.e., serving a 14-Day Notice)
- Required Time of Occupation: 20 years of continuous occupation, 7 if squatter has color of title
- Color of Title: Not required, but reduces required continuous occupation time to 7 years
- Property Taxes: Required, unless squatter has color of title
Who is Considered a Squatter in Tennessee?
A squatter is someone who chooses to occupy an abandoned, foreclosed, or unoccupied building or area of land without the lawful permission for the owner. This person does not rent or own the property. Despite this, squatting is quite common in the United States.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting isn’t necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal offense, while squatting is usually a civil matter. However, squatting can be treated as a criminal behavior if the property owner or landlord has established that the individual in question is unwelcome.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers may falsely claim that they have a right to be on the property. They might accomplish this by presenting fraudulent documents such as fake deeds to the landowner or law enforcement. This is illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but they must fulfill the requirements for adverse possession to take advantage of them. If they do not fulfill these requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Squatters can be complete strangers or even neighbors who want to obtain title to the land.
- Squatters cannot claim adverse possession on lands, tenements or hereditaments used for school.
There are exceptions to the rule.
- If a person beautifies the property (planting flowers, removing debris, etc.), they may be able to avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who gained access to a property without authorization or permission may be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use for squatters to make 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 Tennessee
After residing on a property for a certain amount of time, a squatter can make an adverse possession claim and attempt to gain ownership of that property. In Tennessee, a squatter must possess the property continuously for a period of 20 years before they can make an adverse possession claim (Tenn. Code. Ann. §§ 28-2-101, et seq). However, if the squatter possesses color of title, this continuous occupation time is reduced to 7 years.
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:
- 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 20 years or 7 years with color of title.
If the squatter does not meet these five requirements, they do not have 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 be physically present on the property and treat it as if they are an owner. This can be established by documenting the trespasser’s efforts to maintain and make improvements to the property. Any beautification efforts (such as landscaping) would be an example of actual possession of the land.
Open & Notorious
“Open & Notorious” means that it must be obvious to anyone that someone is squatting on the property. They must not be attempting to hide the fact that they live there. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that a squatter is present.
The trespasser must be the only one in possession of the property. They cannot share possession with strangers, other tenants, or the landowner.
The squatter must reside on the property for 20 continuous years before they can make an adverse possession claim. This time must be uninterrupted. They cannot give up the property, return to it later and claim the time they were gone as part of the ‘continuous’ possession time period.
Color of Title
You may have 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. They may be missing one or more of the correct legal documents, memorials, or registrations.
In Tennessee, color of title is not required to make an adverse possession claim. However, having color of title can reduce the required continuous occupation time to 7 years instead of the usual 20 years. With any sort of documentation that conveys ownership, a squatter must only occupy the property for 7 years before they can make a claim.
A squatter who has successfully completed an adverse possession claim would obtain color of title.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Tennessee?
In Tennessee, squatters are required to pay property taxes to make an adverse possession claim. Property taxes must be paid for all 20 years of continuous occupation time. The only exception to this requirement is if the squatter has color of title and the continuous occupation time frame >has been reduced from 20 years to 7 years. Then, the squatter does not have to pay property taxes for those years.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Tennessee
Tennessee does not have specific laws for how to remove squatters. The landowner must file a judicial eviction to begin the process.
However, Tennessee law does contain provisions for a disabled landowner. If the landowner is under the age of 18, legally incompetent, or imprisoned, they have additional time to regain their land. They have 3 years after a disability is lifted (they come of age, regain sanity, or are released from prison) to prevent an adverse possession claim.
Otherwise, the judicial eviction process begins with an eviction notice. There are several eviction notices landowners can issue:
- Nonpayment of Rent- Landowners can issue a 14-Day Notice to Pay to squatters. If there is no payment made within the notice period, a landowner can file an eviction suit with the court.
- No Lease/End of Lease – If there was no lease or a tenant stays on the property after the lease term has expired, then a notice to quit shall be issued. The notice period depends on the type of tenancy. For week-to-week tenancies, a landowner shall issue a 10-Day Notice to Quit, and month-to-month tenancies a landowner shall issue a 30-Day Notice to Quit.
- Material Health/Safety Violations – If the squatter violates a health, building, safety or housing code violation then the landowner can issue a 3-Day Notice to Quit.
- Illegal Activity- If any legal activity is committed then a 3-Day Notice to Quit shall be issued.
If an eviction is granted, a landowner must wait for the judge to issue a Writ of Possession, this is the squatters final notice to vacate before being forcibly removed. It is important to note that even after a successful eviction, it is illegal for a landowner to take any self-eviction measures such as turning off the utilities or changing the locks. Self-eviction actions can result in a lawsuit.
The squatter may leave personal property behind. If this is the case, the landowner must notify the squatter that they want to remove the property. If the tenant has not reclaimed their property in 30 days, the landlord can dispose of it as they see fit.
The sheriff is the only law enforcement officer that can help a landowner in a squatting situation. The local police and other law enforcement officers can help with criminal trespassers, but they do not have the authority to remove a squatter.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Tennessee
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Secure the property (block all entrances, lock all doors and windows, etc.).
- Pay property taxes in a timely manner.
- Install a “No Trespassing” sign, especially if the property is unoccupied.
- Serve written notice as soon as you realize there are squatters on the property.
- 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. In some cases, you may need to take legal action against a squatter, and having the right counsel can make all of the difference.
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 Tenn. Code. Ann. §§ 28-2-101, et seq for more information.