The law of adverse possession is sometimes called "squatters' rights" in Minnesota. This law gives legal ownership rights to someone who lives on or occupies property without a claim of title or ownership. Minnesota laws require a lengthy adverse possession period and, in most cases, payment of property taxes.
Policy of Adverse Possession
Most people obtain real property by purchasing it from the homeowner, obtaining a deed of conveyance, and filing that deed. But there are other ways to acquire property. One way is termed adverse possession. It involves living on or using land that belongs to another.
Most states have adverse possession laws. The policy underlying these laws is the disfavor of society toward the neglect of real property. Anyone actually husbanding their property will notice if a stranger with no ownership interest to title starts living there or using the land.
The law takes into account that a person who actively uses, maintains and improves a piece of land may have a stronger claim to it than a property owner who neglects the property.
Those who lose property to adverse possession have left it unused and unsupervised for years. The general public policy is that vacant property should not remain unused, unimproved and unproductive.
What Is Adverse Possession?
Adverse possession is when someone makes a claim to ownership of property that legal records indicate is owned by somebody else. When someone claims property through adverse possession, they want to divest the record owner of title and vest title in the party who actually possesses and uses the property.
This is sometimes called squatter's rights. "Squatting" is the practice of occupying an abandoned, foreclosed or unoccupied building or piece of land without the owner's permission for a period of tiime. A squatter does not rent the property or try to buy it. They do not own the property. This practice is more common in the United States than one might think.
While squatting is considered trespass by some, it is not synonymous with trespassing. The latter is a criminal offense; squatting is a civil offense. It becomes criminal when the legal owner makes clear that the squatters are not welcome.
Adverse Possession in Minnesota
Squatter's rights in Minnesota are not set out explicitly in the state laws. Rather, they have been developed by the courts over the years as they interpret code section 541.02 of the Minnesota statutes, "Recovery of Real Estate, 15 Years."
This provision provides that nobody can start an action in Minnesota for the recovery or possession of real estate unless the person bringing the action or their ancestor in interest "was seized or possessed of the premises in question within 15 years before the beginning of the action." It further requires payment of property taxes for at least five of these years.
The state courts have interpreted this statute to give property rights to someone who occupies or uses land for at least 15 years and pays taxes on it for at least five of those years. The tax requirement only applies to "real estate assessed as tracts or parcels separate from other real estate." That means it is not applicable in boundary disputes.
How Does Adverse Possession Work?
In Minnesota, if a squatter moves onto a piece of property, remains there for 15 years and pays taxes on it for any five consecutive years, they can claim title by adverse possession. Paying the taxes is an essential part of a squatter's claim if the parcel has ever been assessed. If the squatters were living on the assessed property, but did not pay any taxes on it, the original owner can have them removed.
However, most adverse possession claims in Minnesota do not involve squatters. These are usually boundary dispute matters between neighbors. For these issues, it is not necessary to pay property taxes to win title.
Proving Adverse Possession
To make a claim to title by adverse possession, the person claiming the land must have met five conditions set out by the courts. These are: actual possession, open possession, hostile possession, continuous possession and exclusive possession. Each term has a special meaning in the law:
- Actual possession of the property:
The person claiming adverse possession must be using the property in some active way. Just thinking about it or considering it is not sufficient for adverse possession. Nor would it give the true owner any type of notice.
- Open possession of the property:
Since adverse possession rights stem from the idea that a property owner should be taking care of and safeguarding their property, anyone seeking to establish an adverse possession claim must be open about it. Sneaking around and entering only at night, for example, is not open possession. Open possession means that the owner could see the squatters by normal inspection.
- Hostile use of the property: This sounds like conflict and violence are required, but that is not the case. The squatters do not have to behave in a hostile way. They simply cannot claim rights if they were given permission to be on the property or pay rent for that right.
- Continuous possession of the property: Those occupying the property must be doing it regularly so that an owner would be on notice if they were managing the property. Squatters who arrive every summer for a weekend are not in continuous possession; they have to be using it on a regular basis for the entire amount of time.
- Exclusive use of the property:
Those occupying the property must act as if they own it, keeping others from using it.
Tacking Adverse Possession Claims
What happens if someone starts occupying the property, but dies before the 15 years are up and possession passes to their relatives? It is possible in Minnesota to "tack" terms of adverse possession together to get to the required 15-year statutory period.
For instance, a couple enters onto abandoned property they did not own and builds a house on it. After a decade, they pass it on to their children. The children would have the legal right to claim adverse possession after occupying for an additional five years, as long as the tax payments were made.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.