Moving into someone else's property without getting their consent may appear to be trespassing. However, in many cases, it's legal. What's more, there are laws that protect squatters.
In this article, we'll discuss what a squatter is, how to prevent them from claiming adverse possession, and what to do if you notice them on your property. We'll also take a closer look at squatters' rights in Montana to ensure that you are well-equipped to protect your land.
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Now, let’s dive in.
What Is a Squatter?
A squatter in Montana is a person who unlawfully inhabits an abandoned, foreclosed, vacant, or neglected property. Since the 1850s, the US government has passed legislation defining squatters' rights. These regulations were created to establish distinct boundaries between permitted squatting and prohibited trespassing.
Montana Adverse Possession
It is important to understand the different terms when learning about squatters' rights.
A set of laws known as "adverse possession" enables squatters to obtain rights of ownership to another person's land after inhabiting it and complying with all applicable legal conditions. The terms "adverse possession" and "squatter's rights" are frequently synonymous.
Moreover, a "disseisor" is someone who files an adverse possession claim to obtain ownership of a piece of property. Before asserting their rights and alleging title to a property in Montana, a disseisor must fulfill certain adverse possession conditions.
Trespassers, Squatters, & Holdover Tenants
It's important to understand the difference between squatting and trespassing when dealing with someone who has invaded your personal property.
The only distinction between trespassing and squatting is whether the property is vacant and whether the owner has made it evident that intruders are not welcome.
Trespassing occurs when an individual or group enters a building that is occupied but has plainly posted signs preventing entry without authorization and a legitimate claim to the property. Criminal trespassing charges may be brought against anyone who persists in entering the property.
On the other hand, if the property is vacant and the property owner hasn't explicitly stated that others aren't welcome, it may be regarded as squatting — and a trespassing allegation won't apply.
Renters who continue to occupy a property after their lease has expired are known as holdover tenants or tenants at sufferance. They require a different approach because they are not squatters or trespassers.
In this case, the tenant is still required to pay rent according to the current conditions and rates. He or she will then become what is known as a "tenant at will" if the landlord decides to accept their occupation of the property without bothering about the legality of the tenancy.
This implies that they are just occupying the premises at the landlord's discretion and are subject to eviction at any time and without prior warning.
If a holdover tenant is given the notice to vacate, they must do so immediately or risk facing an unlawful detainer suit. If a holdover tenant has been asked to leave, they cannot assert adverse possession. They are regarded as criminal trespassers instead.
Montana's Adverse Possession Law
To claim adverse possession, squatters must meet the following criteria:
- Actual Possession
- Continuous Possession
- Open and Notorious Possession
- Exclusive Possession
- Hostile Possession
Let's take a closer look at these elements and what is required.
The first thing that squatters must prove is actual possession. They cannot assert adverse possession without having active control over the land. This implies that they would have to occupy and operate the property as the owner would, which includes carrying out routine maintenance and upkeep.
To gain legal ownership of a property in Montana, squatters must be able to prove continuous possession of it.
The land must have been occupied by the squatter continuously for five years. They must regularly maintain the property over those five years and are required to pay any property taxes imposed.
Squatters' rights are more protected in Montana than they are in the majority of US states, as most demand continuous possession for 20 years for squatters to qualify for an adverse possession claim.
Open and Notorious Possession
The squatter must inhabit the land in a clear and noticeable manner, enough for bystanders to recognize that it is occupied. An adverse possession claim won't be accepted if the person seeks to conceal their land ownership.
If the tenancy of the land is divided among several people, Montana will not accept an adverse possession claim. To have a valid claim, the squatter must assert exclusive ownership of the building, land, or home and maintain continuous occupancy for a minimum of five years. The property's legitimate owner cannot coexist on it with squatters.
Despite what its name might imply, hostile possession does not indicate that the property was forcefully seized. Instead, it occurs when a property is occupied without the owner's knowledge or consent. This also applies to situations where an individual engages in what adverse possession laws refer to as a "simple" or "good faith" occupation but is unaware that it is illegal.
Losing their land to squatters is a risk that many property owners may face if they leave their properties vacant. Because of the more lenient requirements for continuous possession, it's important to safeguard your land from unwelcome guests. Here are a few tips to help you do this:
Install a Good Security System
It's essential to ensure that you have a reliable security system in place. If you cannot afford surveillance cameras, ensure you have locks to keep people off your personal property. Not being able to get into the property will deter potential squatters.
Visit Your Vacant Property Often
The more you visit the property, the less likely it is that someone else will claim it as their own. If you know you will be away long, you must ask someone else to do this for you.
Post "No Trespassing" signs around the perimeter of your property. You can prevent anyone from entering by letting people know they are not welcome on your property. If they do, they will be considered trespassers and not squatters since you made it clear that no one has lawful permission to occupy the building, land, or house.
Pay Property Taxes on Time
If you pay your property taxes, this means that a squatter cannot, which disqualifies them from filing a claim, according to adverse possession laws.
Before an intruder can claim land that rightfully belongs to you, taking the necessary measures is important. The truth is that Montana's adverse possession law doesn't make provision for the removal of squatters. Property owners must follow the eviction process and give their unwanted guests written notice to vacate or file an eviction lawsuit.
Issuing a Written Notice
A landowner may issue one of three types of eviction notices in Montana.
The rental amount that the occupant must pay to continue inhabiting the premises must be specified in a 3-Day Notice to Pay rent, which can be issued immediately. A property owner may ask the court to remove the tenant once this three-day notice has passed without the rent being paid.
A 30-Day Notice to Quit (for monthly rentals) or a 7-Day Notice to Quit (for weekly-paid rentals) may be given for holdover tenants, or there was never a lease in the first place.
Violating Certain Codes
Landowners have the right to give squatters a 14-day notice to leave if they are breaking any health, construction, safety, or housing codes. Before initiating an eviction action, an owner may give a tenant a three-day notice to leave if there has been illegal behavior on the property. To prolong their stay on the property, squatters may contest the eviction. However, the decision typically favors the landowner.
Final Notice to Vacate the Property
When a court orders an eviction following an eviction lawsuit, the sheriff is required to provide the squatter a Writ of Possession, which serves as a final warning to leave the property or face forcible removal. It is crucial to remember that the squatter may only be removed by a sheriff with a court order. Any attempt by the landowner to evict the squatter themselves (by cutting off the amenities or changing the locks, for example) is unlawful and may result in legal action.
Returning Personal Property
There are processes in place to assist property owners in removing any private property that the squatter may have left behind. The owner must wait 48 hours after providing a written notice of eviction before removing the property. A squatter is given 10 days thereafter to claim their belongings.
The property owner may get rid of the items if they are not claimed. However, if they reply, the squatter has an additional seven days to reclaim the property. A storage fee may be imposed if they have to retain the items for an additional seven days.
It's important for property owners to understand adverse possession laws to ensure that they do not have to face an adverse possession claim when a squatter occupies their land. It's important to remember that squatters may only make a legitimate claim and assert squatters' rights if they meet the criteria outlined in Montana's adverse possession laws.
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Are squatters required to pay property taxes in Montana?
Squatters in Montana are required to pay property taxes before they can pursue an adverse possession claim. In certain states, the squatter's obligation to maintain continuous possession can be lowered if they pay taxes, but this is not true in Montana. Moreover, squatters are required to cover municipal, county, or state taxes for the five years that they own the land to claim adverse possession.
Does Montana law support color of title claims?
Color of title indicates that the property owner lacks some of the paperwork required to establish ownership. Contrary to certain states, Montana does not demand color of title to assert an adverse possession claim. Additionally, the color of title claims will not shorten the minimum five years of continuous residence.
Isn't trespassing and squatting the same thing?
No. Trespassing is when a person enters and occupies another person's property when the owner has clearly stated that no one is welcome on his or her property. Squatting, on the other hand, is when no notice is posted of restricted access, and a person occupies the property.
How long must a squatter occupy a property to qualify for an adverse possession claim in Montana?
Squatters must be able to prove that they have resided on the property for a minimum of five years before they may claim legal title. However, they must meet the other four criteria to be able to assert their squatters' rights.