While Alabama doesn't recognize squatters' rights, it does defer to adverse possession laws. In this state, it is illegal for anyone to falsely claim that they have the right to occupy someone else's property. They must fulfill the requirements of adverse possession to remain on the property legally. If they can't, they face eviction and trespassing charges.
How Alabama Defines Squatters
A squatter is a person who occupies a foreclosed, abandoned or otherwise vacant property without a true owner's permission. Squatting and trespassing are similar, but only to a point; squatting is a civil offense, while trespassing is criminal. However, squatting can become criminal behavior if a homeowner establishes that the squatter is not welcome on their property.
Squatters in Alabama have a more difficult time when it comes to acquiring real estate than squatters in some other states. The state doesn't recognize squatters' rights; instead it defers to the laws of adverse possession when it comes to property rights. Squatters or trespassers cannot legally claim they have a right to be on a property under false pretenses. If they do, the property owner can take legal action against them.
Alabama and Adverse Possession
Alabama has two types of adverse possession laws, and squatters must fulfill the requirements of the law to legally claim the right to a property. The first, adverse possession by prescription, allows a person to establish a claim if they meet certain requirements and occupy the property for a specific number of years. They must first make a "hostile" claim, which consists of three elements:
- Simple occupation: The person occupies the property, but does not necessarily know who it belongs to or even that it belongs to someone else.
- Awareness of trespassing: The person understands that they do not have a legal right to occupy the property.
- Good faith mistake: The person has made a mistake in occupying a property, such as relying on incorrect deed information and is not aware of its legal status.
Additional requirements for a claim of adverse possession of the property are:
- Actual Possession: The person occupying the property is physically present and treats it as their own. They may maintain it, beautify it or clean it of debris and can prove they have done so by showing documentation of their efforts.
- Open and Notorious Possession: The person is living on the property and not trying to hide it; the owner knows or should know of their presence.
- Continuous Possession: For a claim of adverse possession to be valid in Alabama, a person must spend 20 uninterrupted years on the property.
Color of Title and Property Taxes in Alabama
The second type of claim is adverse possession by color of title, as set out in Ala. Code Ann. Section 6-5-200. The term "color of title" describes gaining property ownership through means that are not "regular." A claim to the property may seem to have validity, but it actually doesn't because the person either holds an invalid title or holds no actual title at all. With a color of title claim, the period of time of continuous possession drops to 10 years; however, the claimant must still meet other adverse possession requirements.
Alabama does not require squatters to prove they have paid taxes on a property to gain ownership of it through adverse possession so long as they have been living there and maintaining it for a minimum of 20 years. But if they have been paying taxes and can prove it, this shortens the period required to 10 years.
Squatters on Government Property in Alabama
Occasionally, a squatter will find themselves living on property they do not know is owned by a government entity. Land owned by Alabama and counties or municipalities throughout the state is immune from claims of adverse possession, so a squatter cannot acquire title to public lands in this way.
For example, the squatter may live on an empty field that they landscape and live on for 20 consecutive years, believing they have an adverse possession claim. While that may be the case with privately owned real property, Alabama and other government entities in the state still own that property.
Protecting Property From Squatters
To keep squatters from entering a property, landlords should investigate it frequently and make sure to secure it. If they can't visit the property often, they can block or lock doors, windows and gates or hire a property management company to check on it in their absence. They can also put up "No Trespassing" signs to deter individuals from entering without permission. In many instances, someone trespassing on a property does so by mistake. The rightful owner can politely ask them to leave and remove any personal effects when they discover them.
If they do not comply, the property owner can begin the eviction process, much as they would for tenants. The owner must have a "just cause" reason for eviction, which includes failing to pay rent or performing illegal activities on the property. They must also send an eviction notice to the squatter, stating they have seven days to vacate the property or give them a Seven-Day Notice to Remedy, which informs them that they have a certain time to fix the situation or face eviction. If they refuse to leave, the owner can file for eviction in the court.
Landlords and owners should not take matters into their own hands when evicting squatters from a property – attempting to intimidate them, removing their personal effects without their permission or turning off utilities are methods that can leave an owner subject to a lawsuit by a squatter.
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.