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 Wyoming
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Judicial eviction (i.e., serving 3-Day Notice to Quit)
- Required Time of Occupation: 10 years’ continuous occupation
- Color of Title: Not required, but can help boost claim
- Property Taxes: Not required
Who is Considered a Squatter in Wyoming?
A squatter is someone who chooses to occupy a foreclosed, unoccupied, or abandoned residential building or area of land. They do not rent the property or own it, and they are there without the lawful permission of the owner. 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, or ‘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 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 there 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 (move out) and refuses to leave, they can 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 Wyoming
A squatter can claim rights to a property after a certain time residing there. In Wyoming, it takes 10 years of continuous occupation for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-103, 104). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can gain legal ownership of the property. During this claim, the squatter is no longer considered a criminal trespasser. They have 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). Any improvements made to the property can prove actual possession.
Open & Notorious Possession
It must be obvious to anyone that a 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 other tenants, the owner, strangers, or other squatters.
The squatter must reside on the property for the entire 10 years required for an adverse possession claim in West Virginia. 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 have 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 is missing one or more of the correct legal memorials, documents, or registrations.
In Wyoming, color of title is not required in order for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim. If a squatter has color of title, however, it can help validate their claim.
A squatter who has successfully completed an adverse possession claim has color of title as well.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Wyoming?
Some states require that squatter pay property taxes in order to make an adverse possession claim. This is not the case in Wyoming. A squatter can make an adverse possession claim in Wyoming without having paid property taxes.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Wyoming
There are no special laws for removing squatters in Wyoming. Landowners who find themselves faced with a squatter will have to go through a judicial eviction process in order to remove them from the property.
However, if the landowner is disabled, they have more time to stop an adverse possession claim. If a landowner is underage, imprisoned, or legally incompetent, they have additional time to defend their claim to their property. They have 10 years after their disability is lifted (they come of age, are released from prison, or regain competency) to reassert a claim on their land and stop any adverse possession actions.
Otherwise, the eviction process begins with the eviction notice. A landowner should begin by serving the squatter with a Three-Day Notice to Quit. This notice does not give the squatter the option to pay rent or deal with any past-due balances; they must move out within these three days to avoid an eviction.
If the squatter does not move out after this time is up, the landowner can file an eviction with the county court. Some squatters will attempt to fight the eviction to remain on the property for longer, but unless they have a good legal defense or a reason for remaining on the property, the judge will most likely rule in favor of the landowner.
Even after a successful eviction, a landowner must not attempt to force the squatter to move out. Changing the locks or shutting off the utilities are considered self-eviction methods and are illegal; the squatter may be able to sue if these actions are taken. Instead, the sheriff or constable will remove the squatter at a scheduled date and time. They are the only persons legally capable of removing the squatter.
If the squatter leaves behind any personal property after the eviction, the landowner must store it for seven days and notify the squatter of where it is being stored. The squatter must pay any associated storage fees in order to retrieve their property. If the squatter does not collect the property after seven days, the landowner can dispose of it as they see fit.
The local law enforcement will not be able to help you with a squatter. Only the sheriff or constable has the jurisdiction to help in a squatting situation. However, the local police can help remove criminal trespassers.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Wyoming
- 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 Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-103, 104 for more information.