Squatters in New Jersey can gain ownership of a property if they meet all of requirements for adverse possession. One requirement is the property's occupancy for up to 30 for residential areas or 60 years for woodland areas. To evict a squatter, the owner must follow certain legal processes. However, they must not evict a squatter themselves, as the squatter may file a lawsuit against them.
Is Occupier a Squatter or a Trespasser?
While trespassing is a criminal act, squatting is usually a civil matter, but can become criminal if the property owner establishes that they do not welcome the individual on their land. While both trespassers and squatters knowingly and willingly, and without permission, enter or occupy a property that they do not own, a trespasser does not seek to claim ownership, while a squatter does. Squatters do have rights and can gain ownership through adverse possession and color of title. If they fail to do this, they can face arrest for trespassing.
Both squatters and trespassers can make false claims about their right to enter and occupy a property. For example, they may show invalid or fraudulent documents, or deeds to convince the true owner or law enforcement that they belong on the property, but doing so is illegal.
Defining Adverse Possession Law
All 50 states have the doctrine of adverse possession, which helps squatters gain legal ownership of a property after a certain period of time. Its function is to allow a fair result when the true owner has neglected or forgotten their property and someone else has been occupying it or maintaining it for so long that to make them vacate would cause them hardship.
In establishing a claim, adverse possession law puts the burden of the claim on the squatter. The legal title holder has the presumption of ownership until the squatter meets all its requirements. It is their job to present the evidence supporting the argument that they should own the property.
Requirements for Adverse Possession in New Jersey
New Jersey establishes ownership by adverse possession by the nature of the squatter's occupation and the length of time they occupy the property. Possession of the property must be:
- Hostile: They live on the property without the owner's permission and do not have to know that it belongs to someone else. They are aware that they are trespassing, which means they know they are on the property illegally.
- Actual: They have a physical presence on the property and treat it as if it was their own by cleaning or beautifying it.
- Exclusive: They are the only person possessing the property and do not share it with strangers, tenants or the owner.
- Open and notorious: They do not hide their occupancy of the property.
- Continuous Possession: They live on the property for 30 uninterrupted years in residential areas or 60 years in woodland areas.
New Jersey state law emphasizes that it does not require squatters to enter or occupy a property with knowing or intentional hostility. Instead, any occupation for 30 or 60 years that meets all adverse possession requirements is proof enough to support a squatter's claim for ownership of the property.
Adverse Possession Under Color of Title
Squatters can also gain ownership of a property through "color of title." This means that the title to a property appears to be legitimate, but is actually invalid. Color of title may result from a defect on the deed, or one or more of the supporting documents for the title are missing or incomplete. However, according to New Jersey law, if the office of the surveyor-general in the property's location or the secretary of state's office holds a record of this faulty real estate deed for a full 30 years or more and no one has objected, it becomes valid.
In New Jersey, squatters must pay property taxes while occupying a property. The state requires a minimum payment of five concurrent years of property taxes for 30 or 60 years of continuous occupation to claim adverse possession.
Filing "Quiet Title" in New Jersey Court
A property owner who discovers that a squatter is about to file an adverse possession claim can file a "quiet title" action, which is a legal declaration from the court that they legally own the property. This declaration might be significant if the owner wishes to sell the property and wants to inform potential buyers about the range of their boundaries.
New Jersey divides its courts into Law Division and Chancery Division. While Law Division courts handle cases regarding money damages, property owners file color of title actions in Chancery courts, which deal with property ownership and title issues.
Protecting a Property From Squatters
Before a squatter is on the property, owners can take preventive action to keep them out. They should inspect the property frequently; if they can't, they should consider hiring a property management company to look after it. They should also secure it by blocking or locking windows, doors, gates and fences and put up "No Trespassing" signs.
New Jersey has no specific law for removing squatters. Property owners must evict them by serving them with a written notice or through the courts in the same manner as they would evict a tenant under landlord-tenant laws. However, landlords with a disability due to their age (if they are a minor), legal incompetency or imprisonment have five years in which to reclaim their property from the time they come of age, are released from prison or become competent. It is important that the property owner take action to remove the squatter before the squatter begins an adverse possession claim.
Removing a Squatter From a Property
If someone is already occupying the property, the owner can begin by serving the squatter with an eviction notice. If the individual causes damage to the property, threatens the owner, or causes a disturbance in some other way, the owner can serve the squatter with a three-day notice to quit. If the squatter refuses to leave, the owner can file for an eviction order from the court.
If the court orders eviction, the owner must not remove the squatter from the property themselves. They should not take matters into their own hands by changing the locks or shutting off utilities – doing so can result in a lawsuit against the owner. They must wait for law enforcement to remove the squatter.
Removing the Squatter's Personal Effects
During an eviction, squatters may leave their personal effects on the property. New Jersey law requires landowners to notify the squatter that they have 33 days to collect their personal property.
If the squatter does not get their belongings within that period, the owner can dispose of them in any manner. If the landlord puts them in a storage unit, the squatter may be liable for paying storage costs.
- iProperty Management: Who Is Considered a Squatter in New Jersey?
- Courthouse Direct: Color of Title Act: What You Need to Know About Color of Title Adverse Possession
- Justia: Section Section 2A:14-31 - 30 Years' Actual Possession of any Real Estate Under Claim or Color of Title
- NOLO: Who Can Claim Property Based on Adverse Possession in New Jersey?
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.