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The Rights of Squatters in New Jersey

Richard Latimer

April 23, 2021

So, who are ‘squatters’ you’re wondering? Well, a squatter is defined as a person who unlawfully occupies an uninhabited building or unused land. You could say it seems a little like breaking and entering, however maybe surprisingly, it is sometimes legal.

If you’re wondering how to get rid of squatters in your New Jersey area, keep on reading – we'll give you the most important things to know beforehand, what the law says and finally some tips!

Understanding the So-Called ‘Squatting’

Squatting is the act of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied area of land or a building, usually residential, that the squatter does not own, rent or otherwise have lawful permission to use. Despite this seeming on the face of it as an illegal activity, it is actually – perhaps to your surprise – fully legal in the United States. And what’s more, it is much more common than you might think.

What Is the Difference Between Squatting and Trespassing?

Trespassing, i.e., entering someone’s property or land without permission is actually considered to be a criminal offense under United States law. A squatter, on the other hand, lives in an unoccupied area. Therefore, the only way for the two to interact is if the owner has established that the squatter is not welcome, in which case they can be seen as a criminal offender.

What is Legal and What is Not?

A few important notes explaining the legalities must be made right at the beginning. It is illegal for both trespassers and squatters to present falsified or fraudulent paperwork attempting to justify their occupation of the property to the owner or law enforcement.

However, squatters in fact do have rights, but they have to meet the requirements for adverse possession in order to use them. Such requirements cannot be met if the property is still in use by its owner or someone allowed to do so. If the squatters fail to meet the standards, their actions can be considered criminal.

These rights are often however unfortunately exploited by some from the homeless population in order to gain ownership of the property without having to purchase it or even pay rent.

Can a Trespasser Avoid Being Prosecuted?

Perhaps surprisingly to some, yes, he can if he meets the conditions. There are two main ways to go around the trespasser’s legal prosecution. These include: improving/beautifying the place or if the place is inhabited in a case of a genuine emergency.

Image Of A Prison Cell

Holdover Tenants and Their Connection to the Topic

Holdover tenants are those refusing to leave their previously owned property, often staying after the lease has ended. They can also be known as ‘tenants in sufferance.’ The ideal elimination of this situation is for them to continue paying their rent at the original rate and, if applicable, prolong their lease. Nonetheless, if the landlord chooses, the tenants can continue paying rent without worrying about the legality of it – the length of the lease.

In such a case, the tenants are only there at the will of the landlord, and are therefore referred to as ‘tenants at will.’ The only negative of this situation is that tenants at will can be evicted without any prior notice.

The risk arises if the holdover tenant or tenant at will receives a request to leave the property, and they refuse to do so. This reaction can lead to a lawsuit for unlawful detainer. Moreover, after being asked to leave, the tenant can no longer make an adverse possession claim. Afterward, they’re considered to be a criminal trespasser.

What Even is this Adverse Possession?

At this point, you may be asking yourself – what is this adverse possession mentioned all throughout the article? In short, a person can claim possession of the property after a certain time of residing there. Nonetheless, the time in question can largely differ from state to state, so it is important to note again that we are talking about New Jersey here.

According to (NJ Rev Stat § 2A:14-30 to 32 (2016), in New Jersey it takes 30 years of continuous occupation for a squatter to claim a right for residential property, and 30 more – therefore 60 years of continuous possession to make a claim for a woodland area. After a squatter makes an adverse possession claim, they may gain full possession of the property, making the squatter a legal owner and not a criminal trespasser anymore.

However, there are also five conditions that must be met by the squatter before gaining ownership. These are mentioned in the federal law of the US and include:

Hostile

Actual

Open & Notorious

Exclusive

Continuous
It is only after all these conditions are met that a squatter has grounds for an adverse possession claim. Now you may be asking yourself what each of these mean – and we are here to explain all!

The Hostile Claim
The legal meaning of hostile slightly differs from the everyday meaning of the word. It includes can include one of these three main points, depending on the state:

Simple occupation. This rule is now followed by most states, and ‘hostile’ here is seen as the mere occupation of the land. The trespasser can be unaware that the property belongs to someone else.

Awareness of trespassing. This rule, as suggested by the title, requires that the trespasser knows that their use of the property is, in fact, trespassing. In more simple terms, they have to be aware of the fact that they have no legal right to be occupying the property.

Good faith mistake. This last rule is followed by only a few states. In this case, the trespasser has to have made an unaware, good-faith mistake. They may be relying on invalid information, or be fully unaware of the legal impact of their behavior. In conclusion, the person is using the property in ‘good faith’ and is completely unaware the property is owned by another.

The Actual Possession Claim

This condition requires the person to treat the property as their own – they must be physically present and taking care of the place (within their limits of course). The most common actions used as proof of this claim are beautifying or cleaning up the place, and of course, attempting to do reparations and small maintenance.

The Open and Notorious Possession Claim

The meaning of ‘open and notorious in this legal sense means that it has to be notable, it has to be obvious, that a person is squatting on the property. In other words, the squatter cannot try and attempt to hide that they are occupying the property, as this would imply they are aware of doing something incorrectly.

The Exclusive Possession Claim

This means, as the name implies, that the squatter has to be one person occupying the land alone – he or she cannot bring in strangers or other squatters, or even other tenants.

The Continuous Possession Claim

This, again, is a very self-evident claim requiring the squatter to reside on the property for 30 years for residential areas and 60 years for woodland areas. This means such time must be uninterrupted, and leaving even for weeks at a time can threaten meeting this condition.

What about Paying Property Taxes?

Certain states require the squatters to pay property taxes in order to make their adverse possession claim, and New Jersey is amongst them. A squatter must have paid property taxes for at least 5 continuous years at the time of making the adverse possession claim.

Getting Rid of Squatters in New Jersey

Paying Taxes In New Jersey

New Jersey does not have any particular laws when it comes to removing a squatter, and therefore the owners must use judicial eviction to get a squatter off the property.

Nonetheless, there are measures in place for those owners who are disabled under the law (such as a minor, being imprisoned or incompetent). These are allowed additional time to reclaim their property.

After such disability is eliminated (such as they become of age or are released from prison or jail), five years are allocated to allow them to reclaim their property. If such special conditions do not apply, the owner must start the eviction process in order to remove the squatter.

The law in New Jersey states, that an owner is allowed to begin the eviction process as soon as the tenant has not paid the rent – which also applies to squatters. To start the process, the owner must serve the eviction notice. However, the landowner is allowed to serve a three-day notice to quit in special circumstances including the squatter causing damage, threatening harm, or otherwise disturbing the property or other residents (such as with the use of illegal substances).

Even if the squatter attempts to fight the case, it is important to note that squatters will rarely have a defense, as they have no legal right to occupy the property. As long as the owner can prove it is their property and the person occupying it has no grounds for doing so, the ruling will most likely be in the owner’s favor.

If any belongings are left behind, the owner is required to notify the resident that they have 33 days from the postmarked date to retrieve them. The squatter can request that their property be stored for up to 33 days. If they do not collect the belongings anyway, the owner may dispose of them as they see fit. Additionally, the squatter can be charged storage costs if applicable.

If dealing with a squatter situation, people are advised against using law enforcement, as the sheriff or constable may simply not be able to help you. Therefore, it is ineffective to call the police to deal with the squatter, as they may not have the right to heights to help you.

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