The state of Maryland considers a deed holder to be the legal owner of a property and squatters to be trespassers unless they can prove otherwise through the laws of adverse possession.
If squatters do not meet the requirements outlined by adverse possession, they are trespassing, and the property owner can seek their eviction. Landowners must do this through the courts – evicting squatters on their own is illegal in Maryland.
Squatting in Maryland
A squatter is an individual who occupies the abandoned, foreclosed or unoccupied property of another without that owner's lawful permission. A squatter is not necessarily a trespasser – squatting is a civil offense, and trespassing is criminal. However, squatting can become a criminal act if the property's owner establishes that the squatter is unwelcome.
A squatter may falsely claim that they have the right to occupy a property, which they can do by illegally presenting a fraudulent deed or other false documents to the owner or law enforcement.
A squatter can be a stranger to a property owner or a neighbor who wants to take their title. To avoid a trespassing charge, a squatter must fulfill the state's requirements for adverse possession to gain rights to the land. However, they can avoid it if they:
- Beautify the property in some way
for example, by landscaping or removing debris. Accessed the property without authorization or permission due to a legitimate emergency. Begin the adverse possession claim process when the property is not in use.
Adverse Possession Laws in Maryland
Adverse possession%20Enter%20on%20the%20land.) allows a trespasser to gain legal title over a property through the nature of their possession and the length of time they possess it. In Maryland, the possession must be:
- Hostile: The squatter may have made an honest mistake when occupying the property, for example, they relied on an incorrect deed; they live on the land with or without the knowledge that someone else owns it; they are aware that they are trespassing.
- Actual Possession: The trespasser must exercise control over the property.
- Exclusive: The trespasser is alone on the property.
- Open and notorious: The trespasser uses the property as the owner would and does not hide their occupancy.
- Continuous: The trespasser must live on the property for 20 continuous years.
Burden of Proof for Adverse Possession
The burden of proof is on the trespasser claiming adverse possession. They must prove to the court all of the elements listed above. If they do, the burden of proof then shifts to the property owner to disprove those points.
For example, if the owner can prove the trespasser has not been on the property for a continuous period of 20 years, the trespasser may lose their rights under adverse possession.
The trespasser is not required to knowingly enter and have continued possession of a property to establish adverse possession in Maryland – any entry and possession for a continuous 20 years that meets all the requirements above is sufficient to support their claim.
Color of Title in Maryland
"Color of title" means that a property's ownership isn't regular, and the person who claims it lacks one or more legal documents proving ownership. In some states, a color of title claim can significantly help with a claim of adverse possession and even reduce the required period of time for continuous possession of the property, but that is not the case in Maryland.
A squatter must have lived on the property for 20 years without interruption. Squatters who have a successful adverse possession claim may also have color of title.
Eviction Process and Wrongful Detainer
Wrongful detainer describes the possession of real property without having a right to it. Landlords cannot use a wrongful detainer action to evict current or hold-over tenants or someone who has possession of a property under court order.
However, they may file against a person to evict them if they have never been a tenant or had the legal right to possess the property.
When the Court Finds the Squatter Has No Interest
There is no notice requirement before filing a wrongful detainer action if the court finds that the squatter has no leasehold interest in the property – in that case, the court will enter a judgment of possession in favor of the property owner. The court then will issue a warrant for the squatter's removal, which will be carried out by a sheriff at a later date.
The court may also award a monetary judgment to the property owner for attorney's fees, court costs or damages. If the property owner is legally disabled because they are legally incompetent, imprisoned or a minor,
Maryland allows them more time to reclaim their property. They have an additional three years to regain control of the property after the lifting of their disability, for example when they regain competency, come of age or are no longer incarcerated.
Preventing a Squatter in Maryland
To keep squatters at bay, property owners should:
- Inspect their property regularly.
- Secure the property by locking or blocking all entrances, doors, windows and gates.
- Pay their property taxes promptly.
- Put up No Trespassing signs around the property, particularly if it is unoccupied.
- Offer to rent the property to the person or persons occupying it.
- Hire an attorney to help with the process of eviction.
If a property owner finds a squatter on their property, they should promptly address the issue. However, there are certain rules they must follow. Maryland law does not allow self-eviction actions, such as cutting off utilities or changing the locks, to force someone's removal from a property. Doing this may open the owner up to a lawsuit.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.