"Squatter's rights" is a phrase used to describe what in legal terms is known as "adverse possession." Every state has one or more statutes dealing with the phenomenon. In simplest terms adverse possession describes a trespasser's occupation and eventual possession of property belonging to someone else. Each state's laws describe how long this occupation must go on and the required conditions that qualify the occupier to become the owner.
Length of Occupation
To qualify for possession, In Arizona the trespasser must occupy the land for 10 years unless he presents a purported deed and has paid property taxes during his occupation. In that event, the period of occupation is shortened to three years, with the exception of "city lots," where the period of occupation is five years. The deed need not be legal, but must be plausible--a quit claim deed, for example, that conflicted with a valid deed filed in the county courthouse would qualify. Arizona's description of plausible status, "under color of title," is the usual one found in state statutes. The remaining requirements for occupation to qualify for possession are set forth in Arizona's Revised Statutes §§ 12-522 and following.
Four Requirements for Adverse Possession in Arizona
Attorney Calvin J. Platten, Jr. describes the four requirements for possession in Arizona. These are the same four requirements described in the majority of state statutes:
• Possession must be exclusive. This doesn't mean that the trespasser must be the only user of the property during occupation. The actual requirement is more liberal, which is that the trespasser must act with "dominion" over the property in a way that makes it clear that anyone else using the property is doing so only because the trespasser allows it.
• Possession must be open and notorious. A trespasser may come on to a large tract of otherwise unoccupied land, build a cabin and live there for years with no one knowing about it. The requirement for the occupation to be open -- unconcealed -- and notorious--easily seen by even a casual passerby -- prevents this kind of stealthy adverse possession.
• Possession must be adverse. Some statutes substitute "hostile" for "adverse," but in both cases the meaning is essentially the same. The occupation takes place without the owner's permission. In fact, one way of stopping an adverse possession is for the owner simply to give the occupier written permission for the occupation. Having the occupier sign the permission confirms that the occupation is no longer hostile.
• Possession must be continuous. "Continuous" possession doesn't require the occupier to remain on the property without leaving. An occupier who left the property to go to work would normally qualify as occupying it continuously. Leaving the property for long periods of time, however, resets the clock. When the occupier returns, the 10 year countdown begins again.
The Pendulum Swings Away from Squatters Rights
Establishing adverse possession of an improved property in Arizona, as elsewhere, is becoming increasingly unlikely. Some states -- Arizona is not yet one of them -- have revised their statutes to exclude entirely any possession where the trespasser knows he is trespassing. In Alaska and New York, for example, the only area left where adverse possession might apply is over minor boundary disputes where one party may unknowingly have put up a fence or put in a driveway that occupies a neighbor's property.
Uninformed individuals often propose a squatter's rights claim where none can possibly exist. In one instance in Texas a man moved into an unoccupied house and soon made a claim of ownership. In fact, the house was unoccupied because the Bank of America had foreclosed on it and regained exclusive title. Moreover, the trespasser's occupation fell more than nine years short of qualifying. The bank's claim quickly prevailed in court and the trespasser was soon evicted.