Imagine waking up one day to find unauthorized occupants residing on your property, claiming it as their own. This nightmare scenario can be a real concern for property owners in Missouri.
This article will discuss squatter’s rights in Missouri and the steps you can take, and the strategies you use to legally safeguard your property from squatters.
How Does Missouri Define a “Squatter?”
Missouri Courts have defined what a “squatter” is.
“A squatter may be defined as a person who settles or locates on land, enclosed or unenclosed, with no bona fide claim or color of title and without the owner’s consent.” Bess v. Griffin, 234 SW 2d 978, (Mo. App. S.D. 1950).
Can a Squatter Obtain Title to Land In Missouri?
The short answer is “Yes.”
A squatter can obtain legal title to land in Missouri through a legal process called “Adverse Possession.”
Let me tell you of a case where a squatter ended up obtaining legal title to land in Missouri.
“Mr. Anderson,” a businessman from California, acquired a piece of lakeside property at Lake of the Ozarks with future retirement plans in mind.
However, Mr. Anderson rarely visited or monitored the property due to professional obligations and living out of state. This limited oversight created an environment ripe for a squatter.
In the backdrop of Mr. Anderson’s infrequent visits, a squatter, whom we’ll refer to as “Mr. Walker,” recognized the unattended lakeside property as an opportunity for improvement.
Mr. Walker embarked on a journey to enhance the land, transforming it from an ignored plot to a well-maintained tract. This transformation was marked by clearing debris and constructing a small fishing cabin.
Ten years later, Mr. Walker claimed legal ownership of the lakeside property using the doctrine of adverse possession.
With legal representation, Mr. Walker initiated a quiet title lawsuit, asserting his rights based on his continuous, open, and substantial improvements to the property.
As the case progressed, evidence was produced explaining Mr. Anderson’s original intent to retire on the lakefront property and the extenuating factors that limited his involvement, especially considering he lived in California. Mr. Anderson even produced evidence that he paid the taxes on the property every year.
However, as the evidence unfolded, it became evident that Mr. Walker’s actions aligned with the legal criteria for adverse possession, compelling the court to rule in his favor.
This case serves as a sobering reminder that property ownership is not solely determined by acquisition; it requires ongoing engagement and stewardship to retain ownership rights.
The story of Mr. Anderson and Mr. Walker highlights the importance of proactive property management. No matter the rationale, neglecting an investment can expose property owners to unintended legal consequences.
How Does a Squatter Obtain Title By Adverse Possession in Missouri?
A party who seeks to establish title to real property by adverse possession in Missouri must prove that he possessed the land and that his possession was: (1) hostile and under a claim of right; (2) actual; (3) open and notorious; (4) exclusive; and (5) continuous for a period of ten years.” Empire Dist. Elec. Co. v. Coverdell, 588 S.W.3d 225, 234 (Mo. App. S.D. 2019). The statutory reference can be found here Rev. Stat. § 516.010.
Not proving even one of these elements will defeat an adverse possession claim.
Does a Person Have to Pay Taxes to Acquire Adverse Possession in Missouri?
Missouri does not require the adverse possessor to pay taxes on the property. However, in all states, payment of property taxes is good evidence of adverse possession.
Strategies to Safeguard Your Property Against Adverse Possession in Missouri
Avoiding adverse possession of your property involves taking proactive measures to protect your ownership rights and prevent others from acquiring legal ownership through continuous and open use.
Here are some strategies to consider:
- Regular Property Inspections: Regularly inspect your property to ensure no one uses it without your permission. This will help you identify any potential adverse possession claims early on.
- Clear Boundaries: Mark the boundaries of your property with fences, walls, or other visible markers. This can help prevent encroachments and clarify where your property lines lie.
- Communication: If you become aware of someone using your property, communicate with them in writing to assert your ownership rights and ask them to stop. This establishes a record of your efforts to prevent adverse possession.
- Property Tax Payments: Continuously pay property taxes on time. Failure to pay property taxes can weaken your claim to the property and make it easier for someone else to claim adverse possession.
- No Permission: Do not grant permission for others to use your property in a way that might be construed as allowing them to gain ownership. Any permissive use can weaken your defense against an adverse possession claim.
- Document Everything: Keep records of property surveys, deeds, property tax payments, and any communication with individuals using your property without permission. These records can be crucial evidence if a dispute arises.
- Lease Agreements: If you allow someone to use your property temporarily, create a written lease agreement that explicitly states their lack of ownership rights and specifies the duration of use.
- Regular Use: Continue using your property regularly. Regular, consistent use helps demonstrate your active ownership and can undermine any adverse possession claims.
- Legal Action: If you become aware of a potential adverse possession claim, consult a real estate attorney to discuss your options. Taking legal action early on can help protect your ownership rights.
- Post Warning Signs: If applicable, post signs indicating your property ownership. While not foolproof, this can discourage individuals from attempting adverse possession.
- Negotiation: If you discover someone is using your property without permission, consider negotiating an agreement that reaffirms your ownership while allowing them to use the property under certain conditions.
- Land Use Agreements: If you know someone using your property, you can create a land use agreement outlining their use while reaffirming your ownership. This agreement can help prevent adverse possession claims.
How Can a Landowner Get Rid of Squatters In Missouri?
Here are some steps you can take if you have squatters on your land in Missouri:
- Start With a Conversation: First, determine if the individuals on your property are indeed squatters or if they claim to have some form of legal right to be there, such as a lease agreement. You’ll need to address the situation differently if they have any legitimate claim to the property.
- Contact Law Enforcement: If the individuals are squatters and you want them to leave, you can start by contacting local law enforcement. However, law enforcement might consider it a civil matter and might not get directly involved in removing squatters.
- Don’t Use Self-Help: In Missouri, carrying out forcible evictions is against the law. This means property owners must adhere to the state’s judicial eviction process to displace squatters and reclaim rightful possession of their property lawfully.
- Serve Notice: To start the legal process, you’ll likely need to serve the squatters with an eviction notice. The type of notice required can depend on the situation. Consult with a lawyer in your area to determine the appropriate notice to use.
- File for Eviction: If the squatters do not leave voluntarily after being served an eviction notice, you’ll likely need to file for eviction in court. This involves filling out the necessary paperwork and following the legal process for eviction as outlined in Missouri law.
- Obtain a Court Order: If the court determines that the squatters should be evicted, they will issue a court order requiring the squatters to leave the property within a specified period. If the squatters still do not leave, you may need to involve law enforcement to enforce the court order.
- Enforce the Court Order: If the squatters do not leave after the court order is issued, you will need to work with law enforcement to physically remove them from the property. It’s essential to follow all legal procedures to avoid any potential legal liabilities.
I strongly recommend seeking legal advice from an experienced real estate attorney in Missouri if you have concerns about squatters and adverse possession. An attorney’s expertise will clarify local laws, the feasibility of your claim, and the potential risks involved.