The legal name for squatters' rights is "adverse possession." When an owner finds someone on his property who refuses to leave, the owner can bring a suit called "ejectment" to make that person leave. However, if the owner waits too long to eject the trespasser, he can lose that right as well as his actual ownership of the property. Parties with questions about a specific case of adverse possession should talk to an attorney.
Adverse Possession Basis
Adverse possession law evolved from the common law idea that when land owners don't protect their rights to land, they don't deserve to keep that land. If a nonowner -- known as a "squatter" or "adverse possessor" -- begins to use the land and the owner fails to take any sort of legal action against him, or any legal action to cement his own ownership rights to the land, and the situation continues long enough, the law allows the squatter to become the legal owner. This type of property acquisition is called "adverse possession."
Only specific types of possession will meet the requirements for adverse possession. Most states have similar requirements in this area. The adverse possessor must physically go onto the land and he must then make the same kind of use of the land that the owner would typically make. This use must be obvious and apparent enough for the true owner to notice that someone is trespassing. In other words, the adverse possessor can't hide on the owner's land. Possession must be continuous for a set period; each state has its own law determining the time period for continuous possession. Some states allow several different adverse possessors to add their possession periods together in order to give the final possessor adverse possession of the property. This practice is known as tacking.
The adverse possessor must possess the land in a "hostile" manner. Hostility, in legal terms, means neither aggression nor ill-will. Instead, it means that the adverse possessor doesn't have any sort of right or permission, granted by the owner, to be on the land. In most states, whether the adverse possessor knows that he has no permission is irrelevant. However, if an owner gives someone permission to be on the land, and the period of that permission ends, the adverse possessor must somehow communicate that he remains on the land in a hostile manner before his period of adverse possession can begin.
Different Possession Laws
States differ in some areas regarding real estate adverse possession laws. One area is in the period of continuous possession required for adverse possession. Some states' adverse possession periods are as brief as five years while others are as long as 21 years. Some states also require the adverse possessor to perform further owner-type duties, such as paying the property taxes on the land or cultivating the land.