In Washington state, squatters have legal rights. The law allows them to live on a property they do not own if no one takes legal action to evict them. A squatter can even claim their right to the property through a law known as adverse possession, if they meet certain requirements. Washington state law allows property owners to go through law enforcement when a squatter is on their property, but they must supply a declaration form to the police to formally request the squatter's removal.
Differences Between a Squatter and a Trespasser
A squatter occupies someone else's property and hopes to gain ownership of it. Trespassing is a criminal act, while squatting is typically a civil matter. It can, however, become a criminal charge if the homeowner does not want the squatter on their property, and the squatter refuses to leave.
Squatters do have rights in most states, but they must meet the specific requirements of adverse possession. If they do not, they become trespassers in the eyes of the law and can face criminal charges.
Squatters commit a crime when they present the owner of the property or law enforcement with fraudulent documents claiming a right to the property, as do people who take advantage of squatters' rights to gain legal ownership without paying to reside there. But there are exceptions:
- If a squatter beautifies or maintains an unoccupied or abandoned property, essentially treating it as their own, they may avoid a trespassing charge.
- If the squatter has a legitimate emergency that results in their gaining access to the property, they also may be exempt.
- To start an adverse possession claim squatters must be the only person on the property; it must not be in use by anyone else.
Adverse Possession Laws and Hostile Claims
Washington law allows squatters to gain rights to a property after seven years of continuous residency by claiming adverse possession; they must also pay property taxes for that period of time. A squatter cannot gain the right to government-owned land this way, but for lands not owned by the government, they must meet five distinct elements of adverse possession. The first is a hostile possession claim, which has three separate components.
The first part is simple occupation, or possession, which means the squatter occupies the property and does not have to know who owns the land. The second is an awareness of trespassing, which requires that the squatter understands that they are a trespasser and knows they have no legal right to be there. And third, in some instances, the squatter may have made a good faith mistake, which means they took occupation of the property due to false information from an incorrect deed.
Possession Requirements of Adverse Possession
Actual possession is an element of adverse possession. It requires the squatter's physical presence on the property, which they can document by their beautification or improvement efforts. The possession of the property must be open and notorious for a squatter to stake a claim, which means they must not hide the fact that they are living on the property; when the owner investigates, their presence should be evident.
The squatter must have exclusive possession, meaning they are the only person on the property and do not share it with anyone else. They also must have continuous possession, meaning they live on the property for seven continuous years. They cannot leave and come back after weeks or months; their time on the property must be uninterrupted.
However, if the property owner has a legal disability, such as incompetency, is a minor or is serving prison time, they may have additional time to prevent a squatter from claiming the property, such as three years after the lifting of their disability.
Color of Title
The term "color of title" describes a type of property ownership that is not standard because the owner does not have valid legal documents. Washington squatters need color of title to make an adverse possession claim for the seven years they reside on the property, but unlike some other states, this does not decrease their concurrent years of occupation.
If the true property owner has died, becomes disabled, is not in the state, is in the military or is in prison when the squatter takes ownership of the property through adverse possession, the seven-year period may be tolled, which means it would not begin until the true owner is no longer absent. If they have permitted the individual to use the property, the squatter's claim is no longer hostile to the owner's interests, and their adverse possession rights become invalid.
Evicting a Squatter With Law Enforcement
The property owner can initiate the investigation of a squatter and request their removal by law enforcement after providing a declaration form containing the following information:
- They are the owner of the property or acting for that owner.
- The squatter is on the property without their permission.
- The squatter is not the owner or a tenant and has not been for at least a year.
- The property was not abandoned or open to the public when the squatter began to reside there.
- The property owner or the person acting for that owner acknowledges that the squatter can sue them for false statements made in the declaration and for detaining the squatter's property or illegally excluding them from it. The owner may have to pay the squatter for damages, costs and lawyer's fees.
- The owner or the person acting for that owner does not hold law enforcement responsible for their actions when evicting the squatter in accordance with the declaration.
After receiving the form, law enforcement officers must allow the squatter to present evidence of their right to be on the property; if they cannot, the officer can remove them. If the squatter refuses to comply, their arrest will likely ensue. The landlord or property owner can use this remedy only if the squatter will not leave and has not been a tenant within the past year. If that is not the case, the owner will have to evict the squatter as they would a regular tenant, which involves a lengthy and costly court process.
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.