A squatter is someone who moves into or onto an abandoned or vacant property without permission. It may sound illegal, but it is not- not until certain steps are taken by the property owners.
If you own property in Wisconsin, it is in your best interest to know what rights squatters have- and what conditions they must meet to have any chance of making a claim on what is rightfully yours.
Below, you can find an in-depth report of Wisconsin squatters' rights and regulations- along with helpful tips and information on how to protect yourself and your property according to the law.
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Now, let’s dive in.
Wisconsin Squatters' Rights
- Squatters are not committing a crime simply by occupying your property.
- Until the landowner clearly states they do not give permission for them to be there, they can remain on the property without interference.
- Landlords and owners cannot forcibly remove squatters or make any attempts to do so. If they do, they could find themselves in court.
- An eviction notice is the best way to remove squatters. They can appeal it, but the courts usually rule in favor of the owners.
- If certain criteria are met- a squatter can claim adverse possession and gain the legal right to remain indefinitely.
Can Squatters Gain Legal Ownership in Wisconsin?
Although it may seem like squatting is just trespassing- it is possible for squatters in Wisconsin to gain the legal right to remain on an abandoned or unoccupied property through something called adverse possession.
Losing control of a property to squatters is any landowner's worst nightmare- but it can and does happen. Luckily, the state of Wisconsin has strict rules about what circumstances qualify a person to claim adverse possession.
Wisconsin Adverse Possession Laws
Adverse possession laws were put in place not to make it easy for squatters to take another person's property- but to give those who live somewhere long enough and take better care of it than the legal owner the chance to gain the right to remain.
It is not easy for a squatter to qualify for an adverse possession claim in Wisconsin. As long as the landlord or owner takes reasonable steps to look after what is theirs, they should not be at risk.
Adverse Possession Claim
A person claiming adverse possession in Wisconsin must meet five conditions. Their occupation of the property must be hostile, actual, open and notorious, exclusive, and continuous. These rules apply in most states. Here are the definitions according to Wisconsin squatter laws and rights.
Hostile possession has nothing to do with dangerous behavior or violence- it simply means they are there without the owner's permission. Once the landlord chooses to make it clear to the occupants they are not welcome and takes steps to remove them- the hostile possession becomes illegal trespassing. If no objection is ever made- the squatter is not doing anything wrong- despite knowing they are not allowed to be there.
Another meaning of a hostile claim is someone who makes a genuine good faith mistake believing they have the right to be on the property.
Actual possession also means two things: they are physically present at the property, and they treat the property as they would if they were the actual owner. This rule requires them to look after the property and maintain its appearance- including beautification efforts and general upkeep.
A squatter that lets the property get run down and derelict is unlikely to be able to prove actual ownership- and will, therefore, not qualify for an adverse possession claim.
The open and notorious possession rule states that squatters must be obvious in their occupancy. They cannot make any attempt to conceal their presence, and it should be clear to neighbors and passers-by that someone is there.
With this rule, any landowner who checks up on their vacant property should be able to immediately tell that someone is living there- giving them the opportunity to act before an adverse possession claim can be made.
There cannot be multiple squatters sharing the same property. If there is more than one person, they must be able to prove they are together ( family or partners). Multiple parties sharing one space break the exclusive possession rule and do not qualify for adverse possession in Wisconsin.
Last- and certainly not least- squatters must occupy the property continuously for a set amount of time. Continuous possession requirements vary from state to state, but- in Wisconsin- they must be there for 20 years. The only exceptions are those who have a color of title- for them, the required occupation time is only ten years.
This is the most important rule- one that many forget when using adverse possession as an excuse to remain on a property. Nobody can gain legal ownership of a property overnight simply by moving in- it takes time.
If they break their occupancy at any time- even for a few days or weeks- and people notice, the time starts from the beginning again.
Legally speaking, the only way to get rid of squatters for good is through the judicial eviction process. There are no specific laws in the Wisconsin state legislature regarding squatter evictions- so you can use the same procedures you would to evict any other tenants.
What Is the Eviction Process in Wisconsin?
The first step in the Wisconsin eviction process is written notice. You must send the relevant eviction notice for the situation. Here are the options.
Non-Payment of Rent
One possibility is a non-payment of rent notice. If the squatter is a previous tenant who has stopped paying rent, you can serve them with a five-day notice to pay the amount owed before proceeding with eviction. You must include the exact amount of money due to be paid.
In cases where a paying tenant overstays their lease and stops paying, they could technically be considered a squatter. The same notice applies to them- but bear in mind security deposit laws if they paid one.
No Lease of End of Lease Term
If the person's lease has ended and you want them to leave regardless of whether or not they are willing to pay- or there was never a lease in the first place- and you don't intend to offer one- you can issue a notice to quit. The timeframe depends on the type of lease they had.
- No lease or a week-to-week lease requires seven days' notice.
- Month-to-month leases or longer require 28 days' notice.
Landlords must allow the full notice period for the squatter to leave before they take the next steps.
An imminent harm notice is applicable when the squatters pose an immediate threat. It gives five days' notice and can only be issued after a criminal complaint or protection order has been filed.
A squatter that commits any illegal activity or crime on the property can be issued with a five-day notice to quit- regardless of their lease situation.
Once the eviction notice is given to the occupant, they must comply and leave within the given timeframe, or the case goes to court. The next step is filing an eviction lawsuit- which they can appeal- but is likely to go in favor of the landlord.
If the eviction is granted, a Writ of Permission is immediately granted. Once issued, the squatters have a final chance to leave peacefully before being forcibly removed by the sheriff.
It is important not to do anything in the meantime that could be seen as an attempt to force the squatters out. This includes turning off amenities and changing locks. Once the person leaves, you should check for any personal belongings left behind and make a reasonable attempt to return them. If they are not claimed, you can dispose of them without any legal repercussions.
You can find full details regarding Wisconsin eviction laws online for more information.
What Preventative Measures can Landlords and Property Owners Take?
As a property owner, there are several steps you can take to avoid squatters taking control of your property. If you have a vacant property in Wisconsin, here are a few steps to consider if you want to keep it safe from squatters.
Renting Your Property
If your property is occupied by a paying tenant, it cannot be taken over by squatters. Consider working with a reputable property management company to find reliable tenants- so you don't need to worry about the space lying empty and vulnerable.
Putting Up No Trespassing Signs
Most squatters look for properties that seem completely abandoned- with owners that show little to no interest in keeping them vacant. If you make the effort to put up signs saying 'no trespassing,' it could be enough to stop people from attempting to enter your property.
Keeping the Property Secured
Keeping your doors and windows locked is a simple but effective way to deter squatters. A property that is easy to break into is generally preferable- especially if there is no security. Installing cameras and alarms is an additional step that can play in the favor of landlords and owners- as the sight of a built-in system can be enough to put people off attempting to squat.
Maintaining Your Property's Appearance
If you keep your property looking shard, people are less likely to view it as an easy target. A well-maintained exterior gives off the appearance that someone is there regularly- something most squatters tend to avoid.
Wisconsin law is tough on squatters- unless they abide by adverse possession laws for a long time. It is not easy to qualify to claim adverse possession- but it is possible.
As a landlord or property owner, it is important to know what squatters are entitled to so you can adequately protect your land or building. If you have a vacant property, be sure to take the necessary preventative measures to avoid losing legal control.
Landlords can find all the useful documents and forms they need to effectively manage their properties right here. Keep your properties under control and safe from squatters according to Wisconsin law.
Do squatters need to pay property taxes to have a valid adverse possession claim?
It is not automatically required for squatters in Wisconsin to pay property taxes- but it is beneficial for their claim. If they want to go for adverse possession, they should pay property taxes to reduce the time required to only ten years- as long as they also have a color of title.
Without a color of title- even if they pay property taxes- they still need to occupy the land for at least 20 years.
Is squatting automatically trespassing in Wisconsin?
Squatting is not technically trespassing in Wisconsin. Until the rightful owner makes it clear they are not welcome and takes steps to legally remove them, they are not doing anything wrong.
Can Wisconsin squatters make an adverse possession claim on government-owned land?
No- they cannot. Wisconsin law specifically dictates that government-owned land or property cannot be claimed under adverse possession laws.
Does Wisconsin recognize color of title claims?
Color of title is a legal title of sorts- but with an error or missing detail that stops it from being a legitimate claim. The state of Wisconsin recognizes a color of title claim- and reduces the time requirements for adverse possession to just ten years. If the squatter also pays taxes, it reduces even further to seven years.
Can local law enforcement intervene with Wisconsin squatters?
Local law enforcement does not have authority when it comes to removing squatters. Only the sheriff can remove criminal trespassers- and only after an eviction lawsuit is granted and won.
Any attempts to forcibly remove squatters without the legal assistance of the sheriff's office- including changing locks or switching off amenities- could end in a lawsuit against the landlord or property owner.