Under Georgia state law, a squatter can gain property ownership through a law called adverse possession and must meet five requirements to do so. By familiarizing themselves with the rights of squatters in the state, landlords and property owners may be able to prevent someone else from taking ownership of their property.
Defining Squatting Under Georgia Law
A squatter is an individual who lives on an abandoned or otherwise vacant property without the owner's permission in an attempt to claim ownership for themselves. A squatter does not legally own the residence they occupy – the true owner hasn't approved them to pay rent to stay there. The state considers squatting a civil matter, not a criminal act, but may sometimes see it as a criminal action under specific circumstances. If a squatter claims the right to be on a property, the actual landlord or homeowner cannot forcibly remove them without complying with tenants' legal rights.
A trespasser is also a person who enters and occupies a property without the actual owner's permission, but differ from a squatter in that they don't claim to have a legal right to the property. Georgia considers trespassing a crime, but there is an exception to this rule: if a person has an emergency that causes them to trespass, they may not face criminal charges.
Adverse Possession Laws in Georgia
Individuals who wish to take ownership of a property in Georgia may acquire it under adverse possession if they meet specific requirements. For example, they must openly live on the land, pay property taxes, or otherwise act like they already own it. In Georgia, a person seeking an adverse possession claim must live on the property for 20 continuous years before having a legal right to ownership.
Adverse possession gives the squatter the right to take over a property if the owner does not take action within the 20-year time period. Since the property owner cannot take legal action to remove a squatter after that time, they may give it up. Their inaction in removing the squatter is essentially surrender of their property.
Five Requirements for Adverse Possession
State law and the Georgia courts regulate adverse possession claims. A squatter must meet five requirements to claim legal possession of another's property:
- Their claim must be hostile, meaning the squatter does not know who owns the property but they understand that they occupy a place that does not belong to them. This can result from a good faith mistake, such as reliance on an invalid deed.
- They must prove they physically inhabit the property. They can document this by beautifying it or maintaining it while residing there.
- They must not hide their presence on the property; the owner must know, or should know, that they are there.
- They must exclusively live on the property with no other individuals.
- They must live there for a continuous period of time. In Georgia, that's 20 years of continuous possession.
Squatters must show they use, occupy and cultivate the property in a way that attracts the attention of other claimants, but their exclusivity should also prevent someone else from settling on that property. Georgia courts prefer squatters who act in good faith, which means their occupation of the property was an honest mistake and they weren't using fraud to acquire it.
Color of Title
While Georgia allows squatters to occupy a property if they have been on it for 20 years, that time can be shorter under "color of title," which means they have legal documentation to support their claim. In this instance, they can acquire ownership of property in just seven years instead of 20.
Color of title implies that their occupation was a good-faith mistake. For example, if someone buys property, they usually will get possession of the deed for it by the end of the transaction. However, if the title is in error in some way, the deed may be invalid. In this case, the transfer of property to the squatter could be much shorter than usual.
Preventing Squatters from Occupying Property
To prevent squatters from making a successful adverse possession claim, the landlord or property owner can try to keep them from living on the property in the first place. Owners who haven't been on their property in a long time should visit more frequently to make sure no one occupies it. If they can't do this themselves, hiring a property management company to safeguard it from squatters and renting it to paying tenants may help. They should secure all doors and windows with locks or by boarding them up and place "no trespassing" signs to deter anyone from coming onto the property.
If they do find a squatter, property owners can offer the individual the option of renting the property. If they refuse to leave and don't agree to rent it, the rightful owner may need to hire a lawyer and proceed with a court action to evict that individual in possession of the property using the appropriate legal measures.
Evicting Squatters in Georgia
If a squatter is already living on the property, the owner cannot just change the locks or otherwise remove them. They must go through the same eviction process as they would for a legal tenant. The squatter will first receive an eviction notice ordering them to leave the property. Georgia property law doesn't specify how long this should take – this can take anywhere from one day to 10 days.
If the squatter ignores the eviction notice and fails to leave, the property owner can go to court to file a forceful detainer lawsuit. If they succeed, the sheriff will remove the tenant on the property owner's behalf as directed by the court.
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.