When someone enters onto another's property and occupies it without the owner's permission, that person becomes a squatter. In Wisconsin, this type of occupation is known as adverse possession. In certain circumstances, a long-term squatter can become the legal owner of the occupied property if the actual owner doesn't attempt to get rid of him or her for a set amount of time.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Wisconsin law allows squatters and those who encroach on another person's land for 20 years or more to claim legal ownership of the property.
How Adverse Possession Works
Adverse possession is the concept that a trespasser can acquire legal title to a property by virtue of having occupied it for a specific period of time. In Wisconsin, that period is 20 years, with a couple of exceptions. The law works on the simple premise that it's unfair to evict a long-time occupier when the legal owner has clearly neglected or forgotten about the land. It generally covers two situations: where a trespasser enters a vacant property and starts to live there and where, for example, someone encroaches on a neighbor's land by building a fence around a strip of the neighbor's garden and later claims it as their own.
Wisconsin Requirements for Adverse Possession
To claim ownership of property by adverse possession in Wisconsin, the squatter must possess the property in a way that is hostile, exclusive, open, notorious, continuous and uninterrupted for at least 20 years. This means he needs to use and occupy the property as if he were its true owner, without hiding the occupancy and without the owner's permission. Where the occupier has a lease or an easement, for example, he cannot claim squatters' rights. The "continuous and uninterrupted" element is important. If the owner removes the squatter at any point, or the squatter leaves voluntarily, then continuous occupancy is broken, and the 20-year period starts again.
10-year Color of Title Rules
The 20-year occupancy period drops to 10 years if the trespasser can prove that possession was "under color of title." This happens when the occupier honestly believes that she has good title through a deed or other public ownership record, even if the deed turns out to be defective. The occupier may benefit from an even shorter seven-year limitation period if she can prove both color of title and the payment of real estate taxes due against the property for the full seven years.
Proving and Challenging Adverse Possession
Wisconsin law presumes that the original landowner has full legal title to the property. The burden of proof is on the squatter to show that he meets the criteria for adverse possession. A property owner can fight a claim of adverse possession by showing that the legal criteria were not met – for example, the occupier has possessed the land for only 15 years or was in possession with the owner's knowledge and permission. At the first sign of trespass, a landowner can bring an action for "quiet title" in a Wisconsin state court. This type of lawsuit seeks an order from a circuit judge confirming that the landowner, not the squatter, is the true owner of the property.