Squatting occurs when someone deliberately enters an empty property and lives there without the owner’s permission. It can also occur when someone makes an honest mistake such as when an individual incorporates part of a neighbor’s land into their own property by erecting fencing on the wrong side of a boundary line. In Massachusetts, squatters can acquire the right to legally own the property if certain conditions are satisfied.
What are Squatters' Rights?
When someone enters onto someone else's land or property and inhabits, uses or improves it without the owner’s permission, it is known as squatting. Squatting is a civil offense in Massachusetts and the legal owner of the property has the right to evict the squatter by obtaining a court order through the civil courts. Squatting may also be illegal under the state’s criminal trespass or fraud laws if the squatter damages the property or presents fraudulent property deeds.
For certain long-time squatters, different rules apply. Under the legal doctrine known as adverse possession, squatters may gain the legal title to the property they’re occupying if certain conditions are met – and they don't have to pay compensation to the owner or historic property taxes. If that sounds unfair, understand that squatter’s rights kick in only after the squatter has occupied the property publicly for many, many years, and only when the owner has done nothing to evict that person during that period.
Adverse Possession in Massachusetts
Under Massachusetts' adverse possession laws, a squatter can claim the legal title to the property if five conditions are satisfied, which include:
- Hostile occupation. “Hostile” in the legal sense does not mean aggressive or dangerous; it simply means the squatter must know that she has no legal right to occupy the property. That’s not to say the squatter must know the property belongs to someone else; she may simply believe the land to be abandoned.
- Long user. The squatter must have occupied the property for at least 20 years.
- Actual occupation. The squatter must be physically present at the property by living there and/or treating the property as if it were his own. For example, the squatter might clean the property or build fencing around the garden, just as an owner would.
- Exclusive and continuous occupation. The squatter must occupy the property exclusively, meaning he cannot share possession with tenants or other squatters, and continuously, meaning there can be no “gaps” in occupation where the squatter leaves for a few weeks or months and comes back again. The squatter must occupy the property for 20 full and uninterrupted years.
- Open and notorious user. The squatter must occupy the property publicly, meaning it’s obvious to everyone that she lives there. It should be easy for the property owner to find out about the squatting by visiting the property or talking to the neighbors. If the squatter’s trying to hide it, then she cannot claim adverse possession.
Can Squatters Be Evicted?
As soon as a squatter meets the five conditions, he’s no longer a trespasser and has the legal right to stay on the property. Until that point, the property owner has the right to evict the squatter. Massachusetts does not have a process in place specifically for removing squatters, so the property owner must follow the procedure for evicting tenants through the civil courts.
Generally to evict a squatter, the landlord will serve a 14-day “Pay or Quit” notice demanding back rent from the squatter. The landlord follows up this notice by filing a complaint in the civil court. In most cases, a judge will grant an order to evict a squatter who does not meet the five conditions and thus has no legal claim to the property.
For property owners, it’s incredibly important to follow the correct eviction procedure and not attempt to remove the squatter themselves. Forcing a squatter to leave by turning off the utilities or boarding up the door is an illegal eviction, and the owner could wind up being the one getting sued.
Read More: How to Remove Trespassing Squatters
Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a commercial writer. Her work has appeared on numerous legal blogs including Quittance, Upcounsel and Medical Negligence Experts.