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Squatter's Rights

Wisconsin Squatters Rights

January 5, 2024

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Squatters In Wisconsin

Squatters – those mysterious figures who move into abandoned or vacant properties – have long been a subject of curiosity and confusion for property owners. Many property owners wonder—and fear—how squatters sometimes gain legal ownership of the property they’ve occupied.  

Squatters’ rights exist in various forms across the United States, including Wisconsin. The requirements for claiming these rights vary from state to state, making it essential to understand the specific laws that establish squatter’s rights in your area. The squatters rights Wisconsin provides differ from those provided in other states. 

While most 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 Wisconsin squatters rights and explain how adverse possession in Wisconsin works. 

Overview 

  • Minimum Occupation Required: 20 consecutive years 
  • Color of Title Required? Optional; 10 years occupation sufficient 
  • Property Taxes Required? Optional; seven years occupation with color of title sufficient  

Who Are Squatters? 

A squatter is someone who occupies someone else’s unoccupied property without legal ownership or permission from the property owner or property owners. They often move into an abandoned or vacant property. 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 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, as trespassing is a criminal offense. Criminal trespassers enter your private property but do not live there, while squatters occupy and live on the vacant property and are eligible to claim adverse possession. 

What Are Squatter’s Rights/Adverse Possession? 

Squatter’s rights, also known as adverse possession, refer to the general legal doctrine that allows squatters to gain legal ownership of a property through a long period of possession, even without the owner’s permission. When a squatter initiates the process to claim ownership and gain legal rights of another person’s property, they become an “adverse possessor,” or a person claiming adverse possession.  

While the legal concept of 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 make an adverse possession claim and gain legal ownership of an abandoned or unoccupied property. 

Wisconsin Squatters Rights 

So, what are squatters rights in Wisconsin? To make a successful claim for Wisconsin squatters rights and claim legal ownership, a squatter must meet one of the following criteria as per WI Stat. § 893.25, 893.27

  • Occupy the property for at least 20 continuous years. 
  • Occupy the property and have color of title for at least 10 continuous years. 
  • Occupy the property, have color of title, and pay property taxes for at least 7 continuous years. 

Note that both color of title and paying property taxes are optional requirements for adverse possession in Wisconsin, not mandatory. Without them, the occupation period simply remains at 20 years. If a squatter does fulfill these requirements, however, their occupation time is reduced to ten years (if they have color of title only) or seven years (if they have both color of title and paid property taxes).  

In general, the more evidence of responsible property ownership a squatter can present to the court (e.g., property tax records, landscaping, mail addressed to their name, etc.), the higher the chance the court will approve their claim for adverse possession in Wisconsin. On the other hand, the more regularly the property owner takes care of their property, the less likely the court will be to approve the adverse possession claim. Property owners who pay their taxes and look after their property can establish legal ownership easily and are unlikely to lose legal title to a squatter. 

Squatters in Wisconsin (and all other states) must also meet five general requirements for adverse possession claims: 

  1. Adverse/ Hostile Possession—The squatter must not have a valid lease or rental agreement with the owner.  
  1. Actual Possession—The squatter must have actively lived in the property (actual possession) for a certain length of time.  
  1. 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.  
  1. Exclusive Possession—The squatter does not share possession of the property with anyone else. They prevent others from living there like an owner would.  
  1. Continuous Possession—The squatter must hold uninterrupted and continuous possession of the property (for seven to 20 consecutive years in Wisconsin). 

How Does a Squatter Claim Adverse Possession/ Squatter’s Rights in Wisconsin? 

If a squatter has fulfilled both the requirements for squatter’s rights in Wisconsin and the general squatter’s rights principles above (e.g., actual possession, exclusive 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 the right of possession and ownership of a particular property. 

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

  • Gather ample evidence for their claim (e.g., mail addressed to the property in their name, evidence that the pay property taxes, evidence that they’ve “beautified” the property, etc.) 
  • File a quiet title complaint with the court 
  • Attend a hearing with the legal owner in front of a judge, where they’ll present their case for adverse possession according to state law 
  • 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 receive legal right to the property 

As you can see, a squatter has an enormous burden of proof when claiming squatter’s rights in Wisconsin and proving they are the rightful owner. 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 Wisconsin 

In Wisconsin, as in almost all other states, removing a squatter necessitates the full judicial eviction process. Treating the squatter like any other tenant ensures that any adverse possession claim or case for squatters rights in Wisconsin they file is invalid. If you find out that a squatter is living in your property, you need to provide written notice as per Wisconsin law, 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 Wisconsin eviction process for squatters: 

  1. The property owner must send a formal eviction notice as per Wisconsin law on eviction. Possible eviction notices in Wisconsin include: 
    • A five-day pay-or-quit notice (for nonpayment) 
    • A five-day cure-or-quit notice (for lease or legal violations) 
    • A 14-day quit notice (for repeat violations of any type) 
    • A five-day unconditional notice to quit (for illegal activity or threatening harm to another person on the premises) 
  1. After the notice period has expired, the property owner must file a complaint for eviction with the Wisconsin Small Claims Court. 
  1. The court will issue a summons to court, which must be served to the squatter by the sheriff or other authorized process server. 
  1. The owner must attend a hearing to present evidence of lawful ownership of the property to the judge. 
  1. Upon confirming ownership, the court will order the squatter to move out by a designated date. 
  1. If the squatter does not move out, the property owner or property owners can request a writ of restitution/disposal of personal property. After the sheriff receives it, they will give the squatter ten days or less to move out. 
  1. If the squatter still has not moved out, the sheriff will return to forcibly remove them. 

Remember that police officers and other local law enforcement offices cannot remove squatters—only the sheriff has the appropriate jurisdiction to remove the squatter after a successful eviction lawsuit. 

How to Prevent Squatters from Living in Your Vacant Wisconsin Property 

Here are a few practical tips for property owners to prevent squatters from moving into your vacant property and attempting to claim squatter’s rights in Wisconsin: 

  • Inspect your property regularly. 
  • 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. 
  • Understand what are squatters rights in Wisconsin and educate yourself on any changes to local laws and Wisconsin law. 
  • Pay property taxes on time and keep diligent property tax records. 
  • Contact a knowledgeable real estate attorney with questions about squatters, adverse possession claim requirements, or property law. 

Conclusion 

Knowledge is indeed power when understanding the laws that regulate property ownership and squatters rights in Wisconsin. 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 in an abandoned or neglected property 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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