Squatter's Rights

Delaware Squatter’s Rights

December 16, 2023

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Managing Squatters In Delaware

Squatters – those mysterious figures who move into abandoned or vacant properties – have long been a subject of curiosity and confusion. Many people wonder—and fear—how squatters sometimes end up with legal rights to the property they’ve occupied.  

Squatters’ rights (also known as adverse possession) exist in various forms across the United States, including Delaware. The requirements for claiming these rights vary from state to state, making it essential to understand the specific laws in your area.  

While you can feel comforted that it is notoriously difficult for a squatter to fulfill all the requirements necessary to make a successful legal claim to your property, it never hurts to be prepared. In this article, we’ll cover Delaware squatters rights and explain how adverse possession works in this state. 

Overview 

  • Minimum Occupation Required: 20 consecutive years 
  • Property Taxes Required? No 
  • Color of Title Required? No 

Who Are Squatters? 

A squatter is someone who occupies a property without legal ownership or permission from the property owner. They often move into vacant, abandoned, or neglected properties. Squatters could squat temporarily (e.g., for a few weeks) or for years at a time.  

While the term “squatter” probably summons a certain image in your mind, it’s important to note that not all squatters have nefarious intentions. A squatter could be someone who thought they legally owned a property that has been passed down in their family over many generations, only to find out years later that the title officially belongs to someone else. 

Who Isn’t a Squatter? 

Not everyone who occupies or enters a property without permission is a squatter. For instance, tenants with expired leases are not squatters. Rather, they are “holdover tenants,” or previous tenants who no longer have the right to live in the property. Likewise, trespassers are also not squatters. Criminal trespassers are people who enter onto your private property but do not live there, while squatters actually occupy and live on the vacant property. 

What Is Adverse Possession/Squatters Rights? 

Squatters rights are the general legal principles that allow squatters to gain ownership of a property through a long period of possession, even without the owner’s permission. While squatter’s rights might seem antiquated today, the principles of adverse possession were established to reward the productive use of land and discourage neglect of properties.  

There is no federal law governing squatter’s rights, but there are legal precedents for them in each state and laws governing some of the requirements to claim adverse possession.  

Delaware Squatter’s Rights 

To make a successful claim for adverse possession in Delaware, a squatter must occupy the property and have exclusive and continuous possession for 20 continuous years (Del. Laws 10 § 7901). 

Delaware does not require squatters to have paid property taxes or obtained color of title to make a successful adverse possession claim, as is true in other states. However, having either of these to add to the case may help a squatter be more successful in court. A Delaware squatter may bring other evidence to court as well, such as mail addressed to their name at the property address or pictures of improvements/renovations they have made. 

Squatters must also meet five general requirements for adverse possession: 

  1. Hostile/Adverse—The squatter must not have a valid lease or rental agreement with the owner.  
  1. Actual—The squatter must have actively lived in the property for a certain length of time to have actual possession. 
  1. Open and notorious—The squatter’s possession of the property is open and obvious to neighbors or anyone else. They aren’t living there “in secret” or trying to hide their presence.  
  1. Exclusive—The squatter does not share possession of the property with anyone else. They prevent others from living there like an owner would.  
  1. Continuous—The squatter must hold uninterrupted and continuous possession of the property for 20 consecutive years 

Actual possession, notorious possession, and exclusive possession are important components of squatter’s rights legal protections in all states. While you won’t necessarily find these principles in federal laws, they are protected by the courts—and property owners should be aware of how the legal status of their property is determined. 

How Does a Squatter Claim Adverse Possession? 

If a squatter has fulfilled both the squatters rights Delaware protects and the general squatter’s rights principles above, they can file an adverse possession Delaware claim or bring an action to “quiet title.” Quiet title is the legal action to claim the right of possession and ownership of a particular property. 

Note, however, that just because a squatter files a claim, this does not mean they will be successful. There are many obstacles to winning an adverse possession or squatters rights Delaware case—for instance, the squatter would need to: 

  • Gather ample evidence for their adverse possession claim (e.g., mail addressed to the property in their name, property tax receipts, evidence that they’ve “beautified” the property, etc.) 
  • File a quiet title complaint with the court 
  • Attend a hearing with the property owner in front of a judge, where they’ll present their case for the adverse possession claim 
  • Successfully convince a judge that they have fulfilled all the state requirements for adverse possession 
  • Receive a judgment for adverse possession to perfect the title 

As you can see, a squatter has an enormous burden of proof when claiming ownership of your property. It is a highly complex process that often requires the squatter to hire an attorney and to have lived in your property for many years. In all likelihood, a squatter situation you’re involved in won’t escalate to a successful action to quiet title. 

How to Remove a Squatter in Delaware 

In Delaware, as in almost all other states, removing a squatter necessitates the full eviction process. Treating the squatter like any other tenant ensures that any adverse possession claim they file is invalid. If you find out that a squatter is living in your property, you need to provide proper notice, file a formal eviction complaint in court, and attend (or get your attorney to attend) a hearing to lawfully remove the squatter. 

Here is an overview of the eviction process for squatters in Delaware: 

  1. The owner of the property must serve a formal eviction notice. Possible Delaware eviction notices include: 
    • A five-day notice to pay or quit (for nonpayment) 
    • A seven-day notice to cure or quit (for lease violations)  
    • An immediate unconditional notice to quit (for repeat violations and illegal activity) 
  1. The owner must file a complaint of forcible detainer with the Delaware Justice of the Peace Court that hears civil cases in the county where the property is located. 
  1. The court will issue a summons to be served to the tenant by a state constable. 
  1. The owner must attend a hearing to present evidence of lawful ownership of the property to the judge. 
  1. Upon confirming ownership, the judge will issue a writ of possession ten days later, authorizing the sheriff to remove the squatter. 
  1. The constable will give the squatter 24 hours to move out, after which the officer will return to forcibly remove the squatter. 

Remember that police officers cannot remove squatters—you must call the sheriff, who has the appropriate jurisdiction to remove the squatter. 

How to Prevent Squatters from Living in Your Vacant Delaware Property 

Here are a few practical tips to prevent squatters from moving into your vacant property: 

  • Regularly inspect your property. 
  • Make your property appear inhabited during vacancy periods. 
  • Install adequate lighting and security systems to deter unauthorized entry. 
  • Secure all doors, windows, and access points with sturdy locks and barriers. 
  • Post “No Trespassing” signs on the property. 
  • Encourage neighbors to report any suspicious activity. 
  • Consider hiring a property management company to oversee and maintain the property. 
  • If feasible, keep the property in use, even if temporarily, to discourage squatting. 
  • Develop a good relationship with local law enforcement and notify them of the property’s vacancy to increase patrols and response to trespassing. 

Conclusion 

Knowledge is indeed power when it comes to understanding the laws that regulate property possession and ownership. However, it’s worth noting that adverse possession laws are unlikely to come into play in most cases. Property neglect to the extent that a squatter could go unnoticed for the required period is rare, emphasizing the importance of vigilance and preventative measures in protecting property rights. 

Innago does not provide legal advice. The content and materials provided in this article are for general informational purposes only and may not be the most up-to-date information. 

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