Imagine waking up one day to find unauthorized occupants residing on your property, claiming it as their own. This nightmare scenario is a real concern for property owners.
This article will discuss squatter’s rights in Michigan and the strategies you use to legally safeguard your property from squatters.
How Does Michigan Define a “Squatter?”
A squatter is a person who “settles on property without right or title or payment of rent.” (See Anderson v. Great Lakes Property & Investments Inc., Mich: Court of Appeals 2017).
Can a Squatter Obtain Title to Land In Michigan?
The short answer is “Yes.”
A squatter can obtain legal title to land in Michigan through a legal process called “Adverse Possession.”
Let me tell you of a case that will show you how absentee ownership can lead a squatter to make a claim for adverse possession.
“Mr. Anderson,” a businessman from California, acquired a lakefront lot near Petoskey 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 adverse possession.
In the backdrop of Mr. Anderson’s infrequent visits, a squatter, whom we’ll refer to as “Mr. Squatter,” recognized the unattended lot as an opportunity for improvement.
Mr. Squatter enhanced the land, transforming it from an ignored plot to a well-maintained tract. This transformation was marked by putting up fencing, clearing debris, paying taxes, and constructing a small cabin.
Fifteen years later, Mr. Squatter claimed legal ownership of the property using the doctrine of adverse possession.
With legal representation, Mr. Squatter initiated a lawsuit to quiet title to the land, 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.
However, as the evidence unfolded, it became evident that Mr. Squatter’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. Squatter 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 Michigan?
A squatter can obtain title to land in Michigan by meeting all the requirements for adverse possession.
A party who seeks to establish title to real property by adverse possession in Michigan must prove that he possessed the land and that his possession was (1) actual, (2) visible, (3) open, (4) notorious, (5) exclusive, (6) hostile, (7) under a claim of right and (8) continuous and uninterrupted for a period of fifteen years.” (See Comp. Laws § 600.5801 and Thomas v Rex A Wilcox Trust, 185 Mich App 733).
Not proving even one of these elements will defeat an adverse possession claim.
1. Actual Possession
In Michigan, “actual possession” in the context of adverse possession refers to a person physically occupying and using a property as if they were the true owner of the land. This involves treating the property as their own, making improvements, and using it as a typical owner would.
2. Visible Possession
The ” visible ” element refers to the requirement that the possessor’s use and occupation of the property must be apparent and observable by anyone who owns the land.
This means that the possession should not be hidden or secretive. Instead, the possession should be noticeable and evident to anyone who observes the property.
For instance, if someone is claiming adverse possession of a piece of land by regularly mowing the lawn, maintaining the property, and using it openly as their own for a specific period, this use would likely be considered “visible” because it is something that can be observed by neighbors, passersby, or anyone else with an interest in the property.
3. Open Possession
“Open” means that the possession should be readily observable and evident to anyone with an ownership interest in the land. It should not be conducted in secret or behind closed doors.
The concepts of “open” and “visible” are interconnected and complementary elements of adverse possession law, working together to ensure that the true owner and interested parties are made aware of the possessor’s claim over the property.
Both “visible” and “open” relate to the public and observable nature of the possession. “Open” emphasizes the absence of secrecy or efforts to hide the fact of possession.
The open element requires that the possessor’s actions are visible and conducted in a way that doesn’t try to obscure or conceal the assertion of ownership over the property.
“Notorious” refers to the requirement that the adverse possessor’s occupation and use of the property are conducted in a manner that is well-known, widely recognized, or commonly understood within the local community or among those with an ownership interest in the property.
Possession of land is considered “notorious” when it is conducted openly, visibly, and in a manner that would make it widely known to neighbors, passersby, and others who might have an interest in the land.
It goes beyond mere visibility; it means that the possessor’s actions are so evident and public that they become a matter of general knowledge or common awareness.
For example, if someone builds a structure on a piece of land, plants a garden, and uses the land as their own for many years without attempting to hide these activities, their possession could be deemed “notorious.”
This means that their actions are so conspicuous and well-known that people in the community know their use and occupancy of the property. (See Stanford v. Baublis, Mich: Court of Appeals 2008).
“Exclusive” refers to the requirement that the adverse possessor’s use and occupation of the property are without the permission or interference of the true owner.
This means that the possessor’s control and enjoyment of the property are uninterrupted by the true owner’s actions.
In essence, “exclusive” possession means that the adverse possessor is treating the property as if they were the true owner and excluding others, including the actual owner, from using or accessing the property during the period of adverse possession. (See Plymouth Canton Community Crier, Inc. v. Prose, 619 NW 2d 725 ).
“Hostile” doesn’t mean aggressive or confrontational. Instead, it refers to the nature of the adverse possessor’s possession in relation to the true owner’s rights.
A possession is considered “hostile” when the adverse possessor occupies the property without the true owner’s permission or legal right to do so.
Hostile possession occurs when the adverse possessor occupies the property with the intention of asserting ownership rights that are adverse to the true owner’s rights. (See Wengel v. Wengel, 714 NW 2d 371).
7. Under a Claim of Right
A “claim of right” in the context of adverse possession refers to the situation where one enters and occupies land, intending to hold it as his own against the world, irrespective of any shadow or color or right or title. (See Connelly v. Buckingham, 357 NW 2d 70).
8. Continuous For a Period of Fifteen Years
“Continuous for 15 years” refers to the period of time during which the adverse possessor must openly, notoriously, and exclusively occupy and use the property without interruption or abandonment for a continuous span of 15 years.
The adverse possessor’s occupation of the property must be ongoing and without significant gaps. This means that they consistently use and treat the property as their own without substantial breaks in their possession.
The possession should not be disrupted or interrupted by actions from the true owner or other parties that would break the continuity of the possession.
The 15-year period begins when the adverse possessor’s possession becomes hostile, open, notorious, exclusive, and continuous. (See Comp. Laws § 600.5801).
There does not need to be fifteen years of continuous possession by the same person. Ordinarily, an adverse possessor can take advantage of the periods of adverse possession by his predecessor.
Separate periods of adverse possession may be “tacked” together to make up the entire fifteen-year period with the result that the final adverse possessor gets title to the land.
Strategies to Safeguard Your Michigan Property Against Adverse Possession
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 Michigan?
Here are some steps you can take if you have squatters on your land in Michigan:
- 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 Michigan, carrying out forcible evictions is against the law. The Michigan anti-lockout statute, MCL 600.2918, “virtually eliminates the self-help remedy in Michigan in favor of judicial process to remove a tenant wrongfully in possession.” (See Deroshia v Union Terminal Piers, 151 Mich App 715, 719). 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 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 Michigan 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 Michigan 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.