Squatter’s laws provide a way for people to take ownership of real estate or a portion of a larger property by adverse possession. This is a legal process that requires living on or otherwise using a piece of property for a certain number of years, after which the possessor can make a legal claim for ownership of the property. However, the possession of the property is subject to strict criteria to maintain legal standing. Specifically, Wisconsin law requires the occupation to be hostile, open, exclusive and continuous.
Statute of Limitations
Wisconsin Statute 893.25 states:
A person who, in connection with his or her predecessors in interest, is in uninterrupted adverse possession of real estate for 20 years...may commence an action to establish title.
In layman's terms, this describes the length of time the possessor has to wait before he can assert adverse possession of the property, also known as the statute of limitations. In Wisconsin it is 20 years from the date the claimant takes possession of the property. The statute of limitations starts over if the claimant moves away from or stops using the property for any length of time.
According to Jessica J. Shrestha, an attorney specializing in civil litigation and contributor to the state bar publication Wisconsin Lawyer, the possessor’s claim must meet additional criteria beyond the 20-year time frame to be considered an adverse possession.
- The occupation of the property must be hostile, which means that the property owner has not given the claimant permission to use or live on the land.
- The possession must be done openly without any attempts to hide or obscure the use of the property.
- The occupation must be exclusive. This means that the claimant must assert that he is the sole owner of the property and that no other party can claim ownership.
- The claimant must occupy the property continuously for the entire 20-year period.
Taking Legal Action Against Adverse Possession
Property owners can fight against an adverse possession claim by proving that one or more of the criteria have not been met. For example, property owners can show that a claimant has only occupied the property for 15 years instead of the required 20. They can also provide evidence of an agreement between the owner and the claimant that gives the possessor permission to use the property. This eliminates the “hostile” aspect of an adverse possession claim while also establishing that the occupier acknowledged the actual owner of the land.
Shrestha warns that if property owners are not successful in fighting an adverse possession they may be on the hook for any damages or changes made to the land, such as the removal of the claimant's property and putting up fences. Even if property owners are successful, Wisconsin law allows the claimant to sue the owner for the costs of any improvements made to the property, such as having a house built or making the land suitable for farming.