You would probably assume that having legal ownership of a property means that property will forever be yours, even if you abandoned it for 50 years and returned to it.
Even if squatters were to move in, all you'd have to do is show your title and then get them out, right? Unfortunately, that's not the way it works, thanks to adverse possession laws that can see the squatter becoming the new property owner.
Don't freak out about potentially losing your unoccupied property just yet! All you need is to be armed with the correct legal advice and supporting information.
With that said, the details below cover everything you need to know about squatters' rights in Oklahoma.
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Now, let’s dive in.
If a residential building or a piece of land were to become abandoned, foreclosed, or otherwise unoccupied, someone who decides to occupy it with no permission from the lawful owner would be considered a squatter in Oklahoma.
Unlike a tenant, this person doesn't pay rent. It's simply an act of seeing what appears to be a vacant property and deciding to live in it.
More property owners in the United States deal with this than you'd think, and some of them are unknowingly doing so.
Squatting vs. Trespassing
You are likely familiar with the fact that trespassing is a criminal offense. Considering the description of squatting, it's the same principle, right? Well, there are circumstances where the squatter would be treated as a trespasser.
However, these usually require that the lawful owner of the property has made it clear that the squatter is unwelcome. Outside of that, it becomes a civil matter.
Realistically, squatters do have rights in Oklahoma, even if some think this should not be so. However, only an adverse possession claim can see them use the said rights, and some prerequisites must first be met.
Sometimes, squatters try to gain ownership of the property by falsifying documents and presenting them to either law enforcement or the rightful owner. There is no circumstance under which these fraudulent documents are considered legal.
Pay attention to these exceptions, though:
- A squatter cannot initiate an adverse possession claim on a property that is in use.
- Maintenance, planting flowers, and other beautification activities may be grounds for a squatter to avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- A genuine emergency can also be grounds for someone who enters the property without permission to be exempt from trespasser prosecution.
Oklahoma Adverse Possession Law
Now it's time to cover adverse possession laws, which are the real meat of the matter where squatters' rights are concerned. The primary thing to remember is that a squatter in Oklahoma must have been residing on the property in question for no less than 15 consecutive years before an adverse possession claim may be made.
Adverse possession laws allow the squatter to legally remain on the property once the claim made is successful. Time is just one piece of the puzzle though.
The United States requires that the squatter meet several other requirements before an adverse possession claim can be made for the property.
Below is a look at how color of title works, as well as the fundamentals of how each of these requirements works.
The Color of Title Principle
The easiest way to think of "color of title" is to imagine that it means "irregular ownership." Realistically, that's exactly what it is. The abnormal circumstances come from the fact that the owner doesn't possess all the legal documents or registrations necessary.
Oklahoma law requires that squatters have a specific color of title if they wish to make an adverse possession claim. More specifically, a title from a tax assessor must be in their possession.
Of course, such a title requires them to pay property taxes for five consecutive years. Note that a squatter who wins an adverse possession case also has color of title.
This is the physical presence element of things. Essentially, the squatter would need to be on the property and also would need to treat it as an owner would. One of the best ways to do this is to go the beautification route. Planting flowers or removing debris are examples of how to do this.
The word "hostile" may give the wrong impression here. It is meant in its legal context which can either mean occupation of the land, using the property without awareness of its legal status, or using the property while knowing that doing so is trespassing.
Open and Notorious Possession
Anyone should be able to tell that the squatter is residing on the property, which means hiding is not acceptable. For example, should a legal owner do reasonable checks, the fact that someone resides there must be obvious.
Exclusive possession requires that the squatter does not share possession of the land with anyone else.
This principle comes back to what was said before. Since Oklahoma adverse possession law requires that a squatter has an established, 15-year continuous possession period, the person cannot leave for weeks or months.
The tenure of stay on the property must be uninterrupted during this entire time.
People who fall into this category are known as "tenants at sufferance" or "holdover tenants." In this case, though the lease has ended, such tenants are still legally required to pay the rent that would have been required during the time the lease was active.
Landlords can then choose to let the situation be what it is and accept the rent. This choice would make the occupant a "tenant at will." This means that the landlord could choose to evict the person on a whim at any time and there is no legal action of recourse that could be taken.
Of course, there could be a tenant at sufferance whom a landlord decides to serve written notice but the person refuses to leave. At that point, a lawsuit for unlawful detainer could be at play. Note that adverse possession laws forbid holdover tenants from making claims if they were asked to leave.
Note that once things get to this stage, the tenant is now considered a criminal trespasser.
If a squatter wants to have any hopes of making an adverse possession claim successfully in Oklahoma, paying property taxes will be required. After all, don't forget that the claim requires a title from a tax assessor, and a prerequisite to obtaining that is the paying of five years' consecutive property taxes.
As a property owner in Oklahoma, the prospect of dealing with squatters can seem nightmarish. Imagine owning your property, having someone else you didn't authorize make their way onto it, and then that person decides to initiate an adverse possession claim that leads to a legal ruling allowing their stay.
It may sound horrible, but there are steps that you can take to prevent having to deal with any of this. Here is a collection of them:
- Do not ever neglect to pay your property taxes. You don't want the squatter to be the one doing this to build up that consecutive five-year payment threshold.
- Inspect your property regularly. Honestly, enough landlords don't do this. Sometimes, if you just went by, you'd see that someone was trespassing, which would allow you to act quickly before things spiral out of control.
- Secure your property well. Noticeable entry points can very much encourage squatters. Block your exits, close your windows, and lock the doors.
- Ensure that it's clear that you want no one on the property. Consider putting up signs to indicate that trespassing isn't allowed. This is especially important if no one is occupying the space.
- If you should find that squatters are present, ensure that you serve a written eviction notice in the shortest possible order.
- Retain the services of an experienced attorney. This can be a sensitive legal matter to navigate, especially when it reaches the adverse possession stage. The best thing you can do is to have someone familiar with the legalities of things on your side.
Here's where you need to be careful. Oklahoma technically doesn't have any laws that speak specifically to the removal of squatters from a property. This is compounded by the fact that these trespassers will often refuse to leave when civil attempts are made to get them to do so.
If you find yourself in this situation, then you'll need to file a judicial eviction to initiate the removal process. The whole thing will start with an eviction notice that can span any of the following:
- A tenant stays beyond the expiration date of a lease or there is no lease in place. For annual tenancies, the notice is 90 days. There should be 30 days for monthly tenancies, and seven days for weekly ones.
- There is illegal activity taking place on the property that is a threat to the safety, health, or peaceful enjoyment of others. In this case, a notice isn't technically required. An eviction suit will do.
- Rent hasn't been paid in which case a notice to pay will be filed. Should the payment not be made by the end of the stipulated period, an eviction suit may then be filed.
Note that there is a provision made for a legal disability. If a landlord is legally incompetent, imprisoned, or underage, no adverse possession claim can be filed against their land. If the landlord's disability should be lifted, a two-year period will still need to elapse.
Should the court grant an eviction, a Writ of Execution is issued, which is the squatter's final notice to vacate the premises. If the person doesn't leave within 48 hours, then a sheriff will resort to forceful removal. Since the squatter is now a trespasser, there may be a $500 fine or time spent in county jail.
Note that the landlord should not attempt any self-evicting actions such as changing locks or shutting off utilities. These are illegal acts that could result in a lawsuit.
If there should be personal property left behind by the squatter, the landlord should send a 30-day notice to have it retrieved. After this time passes, the property can be sold or disposed of.
Wrapping Things Up
With adverse possession seeing squatters claiming property once they've been physically present for a period alongside other requirements, it can be worrisome for landowners to keep them away.
Once you follow the tips above and keep the provisions in mind, however, there should be nothing to worry about.
If you need a streamlined way to access all the forms you need as an Oklahoma landlord, download them here!
How Does Paying Property Taxes Work for Squatters?
Squatters must pay taxes for at least five years if they hope to get a title from a tax assessor, which is needed for an adverse possession claim.
Is There an Explanation in History for How Squatting Came to Be Accepted?
This goes back to European colonization times when official property owners were undetermined, which meant people were given land since they either worked or lived on it.
Do Squatters Have Rights in All States?
Yes. Adverse possession laws exist in all states but may be implemented or enforced differently from one to the next.
What Happens if a Tenant Who Leased a Property Wants to Capitalize on Squatters' Rights?
This will not work as these properties are not abandoned or neglected.