The legal name for squatters' rights is adverse possession -- the act of trespassing on property and occupying it until the trespasser becomes the legal owner. Georgia's statutes list adverse possession requirements similar to those in other states.
The adverse possession statutes require that the trespasser occupy the property for a minimum of 20 years unless the occupation is "under color of title," in which case the time requirement becomes seven years.
"Under color of title" is a venerable legal phrase that means something along the lines of "the presentation of a purported title to the property." The title would have to be "purported" rather than actual because if it really were a legal title it wouldn't be adverse possession.
This odd-seeming circumstance, where a purported title isn't legal, can arise in several ways. One common way is that someone obtains, perhaps through inheritance, a quitclaim deed -- a deed that doesn't clearly establish title but only establishes that one or more others relinquish their claim to the property. A quitclaim deed may then conflict with the true title registered by the governing authority, usually the county.
Georgia's statutory requirements for adverse possession are that the trespasser's occupation be
• Actual. It is not enough merely to state a claim; the trespass must be physical.
• Hostile. In the statutes, hostile doesn't necessarily mean aggressive. But the trespasser's occupation must counter the owner's property interest. Occupying property with the owner's permission is not hostile.
• Open and "notorious." The trespass must be visible, not hidden from view. "Notorious" emphasizes that the occupation must be easily seen even by a casual passerby.
• Continuous. The trespasser can leave the property for the usual reasons a property owner may leave: for work, to buy groceries and supplies, even to take a short vacation. But an occasional occupation doesn't qualify.
• Exclusive. The trespasser may allow others to come onto the property so long as it is clear that his behavior is consistent with that of a true owner. If others use the property as their right, this nullifies the original trespasser's claim to exclusive use.
Complexities of Adverse Possession
There is a popular misunderstanding of adverse possession that supposes that anyone who moves into a vacant house begins establishing a legal right to the property. In reality, such actions are almost always illegal and the trespass may even rise to a felony.
Real adverse possession cases are often complex, with a confusing mix of motives and actions extending over several years and multiple generations of occupiers and possessors. In one 2006 Georgia case, the state's Court of Appeals reversed an earlier decision only after presentations of the rights of the respective sides that reviewed several different revisions of deeds, claims and conflicting surveys. The court's decision hinged on such subtleties as whether surveyors' drills and pins used to establish the purported boundaries and left in place constituted an actual possession. The court ruled in this instance that they did not.