Following the mortgage meltdown of 2008-9, many homes went into foreclosure and were subsequently unoccupied and abandoned. Eventually, squatters moved in. Some believed their occupation gave them the right to possess the property, but in almost all these instances, no such right existed. The requirements for adverse possession -- the legal term for squatters rights -- generally are rigorous, and New Jersey's statutes are stricter than most.
New Jersey's Time Requirement
In every state, a squatter must occupy the property for a specified minimum number of years. New Jersey's requirements are particularly stringent. Woodland or uncultivated property must be occupied for a minimum of 60 years. Other property -- an abandoned house, for example -- must be occupied for at least 30 years. A new statute introduced in 2014 would shorten this period to 20 years.
New Jersey's adverse possession statutes have the usual requirements for adverse possession stipulated in most state laws:
- The occupation must be hostile. This means that the trespasser must occupy the property without the owner's permission.
- The occupation must be actual. The trespasser establishes possession by living on the property or occupying it continuously, not merely by putting up a notice that he owns it.
- The occupation must be open and notorious. The trespasser's use of the property may not be covert and must be apparent to even a casual passerby.
- The occupation must be exclusive and continuous. An exclusive occupation doesn't necessarily mean that no one else uses the property during the occupation, but it has to be clear that the use by others is with the trespasser's permission -- he has to act like an owner. A trespasser can establish a continuous occupation if he uses the property regularly. Short absences, such as leaving to go to work or to shop, do not interrupt the continuity of occupation. Long and irregular absences reset the clock.
Quiet Title Actions and Squatters Rights
Recent changes in some states' laws pertaining to adverse possession have made it harder for an adverse possessor to obtain a quiet title. A quiet title action is a suit brought before the court when ownership of property is either disputed or in doubt. The suit aims to determine who is the rightful owner. At that point, the winner of the suit can record the quiet title just like any other and becomes the rightful owner of a property.
Historically, states have interpreted adverse possession statutes in conflicting ways. In the 21st Century, however, courts have interpreted -- and in some cases legislatures have amended -- adverse possession statutes to disqualify deliberate and knowing occupation and to allow an occupation to move to possession only if the trespass is the result of a good faith or innocent mistake--if, for example, a neighbor mistakenly places a boundary fence on neighboring property. In 2004, neighboring New York State, for example, revised its statutes to restrict adverse possession to "good faith" situations and categorically disallowed knowing trespassers from possession. Subsequently, New York's courts have even applied this rule retroactively, disallowing an adverse possession that began decades before the statute revision.
New Jersey has not made a similar change, but in 2014 it introduced new statutes that shortened the minimum occupation period and no longer required the trespass to be knowing and deliberate. The new language requires only that the occupation be "inconsistent with ownership of the property by others." When this article was written, the new bill had been favorably reported out of committee but had not yet become law.