Adverse possession, commonly referred to as squatter’s rights, is a law that allows someone to automatically acquire legal ownership of someone else's property after a certain amount of time has passed. It can be real estate, such as a house, an entire parcel of land, or just a small section of a larger property. The use of adverse possession dates back to Pennsylvania’s founding when it was used to deal with unused land that wasn't generating tax revenue. Today, the law mostly comes into play during disputes over inherited and forgotten property.
Adverse Possession Requirements
How long the squatter or "claimant" has used or lived in or on the property is the most important determinant of whether she can claim adverse possession. In Pennsylvania, she must have squatted there for at least 21 years, but other qualifications also must be met before she can take someone else's property in this way.
- The occupation must be continuous. The claimant must have used or lived on the property for the entire 21 years. This includes seasonal use of the land for farming.
- The possession must be hostile, meaning that the claimant does not have permission from the owner to occupy the property.
- The possessor must claim ownership of the property. He cannot assert that it is owned by a family member or another party.
- The possession of the property must be “notorious,” meaning the claimant is not hiding his occupation of the property or his activities on the land.
The original owner of the land
- Proof: The true owner first must prove that some or all of the adverse possession criteria have not been met. For example, the owner might show that the claimant hasn’t possessed the property for the full 21 years or hasn’t possessed it continuously.
- Permission: The property owner might also consider giving the claimant permission to use the property and to get him to document this by signing an agreement. This establishes the claimant's knowledge of the true owner of the property and eliminates the “hostility” of the possession, knocking out two of the necessary qualifications.
- Lawsuit: The third option is to take legal action, such as filing a trespassing lawsuit or an injunction that bans anyone from using the property. This establishes legal ownership of the property and provides a way to start the eviction process. Plaintiffs can also request a jury trial to decide ownership.