West Virginia Squatter’s Rights
January 5, 2024
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Squatters In West Virginia
Squatters – those mysterious figures who move into abandoned or vacant properties – have long been a subject of curiosity and confusion for property owners. Many people wonder—and fear—how squatters sometimes gain legal ownership and legal title of the property they’ve occupied.
Squatters’ rights exist in various forms across the United States, including West Virginia. The requirements for claiming these rights vary from state to state, making it essential to understand the specific laws in your area. The squatters rights West Virginia provides differ from those provided by other states’ statutes.
While property owners can feel comforted that it is notoriously difficult for a squatter to fulfill all the requirements necessary to make a successful legal claim, it never hurts to be prepared. In this article, we’ll cover West Virginia squatters rights and explain how adverse possession laws work in this state.
- Minimum Occupation Required: 10 consecutive years
- Property Taxes Required? No
- Color of Title Required? No
Who Are Squatters?
A squatter is someone who occupies someone else’s abandoned or unoccupied property without ownership or permission from the property owner. They often move into vacant or neglected properties. Squatters could squat temporarily (e.g., for a few weeks) or for years at a time, and they do not pay rent.
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 wants to claim ownership.
Who Isn’t a Squatter?
Not everyone who occupies or enters an unoccupied property without permission is a squatter. For instance, tenants with expired leases are not squatters. Rather, they are “holdover tenants,” or previous tenants who once had legal possession but no longer have the right to live in the property. Likewise, trespassers are also not squatters, as trespassing is a criminal offense. 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 Are Squatter’s Rights/Adverse Possession?
Squatter’s rights, also known as adverse possession, refer to the general legal concept that allows squatters to gain ownership and legal title of a property through a long period of occupation, 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 file an adverse possession claim.
West Virginia Squatters Rights
To make a successful claim for adverse possession in West Virginia, adverse possession laws require a squatter to do the following as per WV Code § 55-2-1:
- Occupy the property for at least ten continuous years.
This ten-year minimum period of exclusive and continuous possession is the only requirement to gain legal title in West Virginia. In some states, squatters are required to pay property taxes on the land or have what’s called “color of title” for the length of occupation before filing an adverse possession claim. Color of title refers to nontraditional ownership of a property, usually without one or more legal documents, such as an official deed.
Squatters in West Virginia are not obligated to fulfill either of these requirements (paying property taxes or having color of title), nor will doing so reduce the occupation minimum of ten years. Rather, squatters gain color of title through the adverse possession claim process.
However, if a squatter provides evidence that they can pay property taxes or that they have color of title in court, this may help strengthen their legal case for squatters rights in West Virginia and prove to the court that they should have legal rights to the property after ten years.
Squatters in West Virginia (and all other states) must also meet five general requirements for an adverse possession claim:
- Hostile/Adverse Possession—The squatter must not have a valid lease or rental agreement with the owner.
- Actual Possession—The squatter must have actively lived in the property (actual possession) for a certain length of time.
- Open and Notorious Possession—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.
- Exclusive Possession—The squatter does not share possession of the property with anyone else. They prevent others from living there like a property owner would.
- Continuous Possession—The squatter must hold uninterrupted and continuous possession of the property (for ten consecutive years in West Virginia).
How Does a Squatter Claim Adverse Possession/ Squatters Rights in West Virginia?
If a squatter has fulfilled both the requirements for squatters rights in West Virginia and the general squatter’s rights principles above (e.g., hostile possession, continuous possession, etc.), they can file a claim for adverse possession or bring an action to “quiet title.” Quiet title is the legal action to claim ownership and right of possession of a particular property.
Note, however, that just because a squatter files an adverse possession claim, this does not mean they will be successful. There are many obstacles to winning a claim for adverse possession in West Virginia—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 adverse possession
- 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 and become the property owner
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 West Virginia
In West Virginia, 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 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 West Virginia eviction process for squatters:
- The property owner may choose to send an eviction notice before going to court. Note that according to West Virginia law, there is no requirement to send a formal written notice of eviction before filing an eviction action for nonpayment or lease violations.
- After the notice period has expired (if one was sent), the property owner must file a complaint for eviction with the West Virginia Magistrate or Circuit Court.
- The court will issue a summons or written notice to court, which must be served to the squatter by the sheriff or other non-party of age.
- Both the property owner and the squatter must attend a hearing to present evidence of lawful ownership of the property to the judge.
- Upon confirming ownership, the court will issue an order giving the squatter a set number of days to vacate the property.
- If the squatter does not move out, the landlord can request a writ of possession from the court.
- The sheriff will serve the writ to the squatter and return to forcibly remove them and restore possession to the property owner.
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 West Virginia Property
Here are a few practical tips to prevent squatters from moving into your vacant property and attempting to claim squatters rights in West Virginia:
- Regularly inspect your unoccupied 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.
- Pay property taxes on time and keep diligent property tax records.
- Educate yourself on the laws that account for squatters rights in West Virginia so that you are prepared should a property dispute occur.
- Contact a knowledgeable real estate attorney with questions about squatters or adverse possession laws.
- Secure legal protection immediately in case of a squatter dispute.
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.