Delaware Squatters’ Rights & Adverse Possession Laws - 2024

Introduction to Adverse Possession in Delaware

Adverse possession is a legal principle that allows a person to gain ownership of a property that has been abandoned or unoccupied by the legal owner for an extended period of time. This is commonly referred to as "squatter's rights" in many states. 

In Delaware, in order to claim adverse possession, an individual must occupy an abandoned property continuously for 20 years. They must also pay all property taxes and make improvements to the land during that time. After the 20 year period, the adverse possessor can file a lawsuit to claim legal title to the property.

The rationale behind adverse possession laws is to encourage productive use of land. If a property owner neglects their land for decades and allows it to sit vacant, the law provides a process for another person to gain ownership by occupying and cultivating the land. This prevents idle properties from falling into disrepair and wasting away.

Delaware has long recognized adverse possession rights in its property laws. The required 20 years of continuous, open occupation aligns with statutes in other Mid-Atlantic states. Adverse possession claims often arise when a property has unclear title records, multiple potential owners, or boundary line disputes between neighbors. The 20 year rule aims to eventually settle ownership in these ambiguous cases.

Requirements for Adverse Possession in Delaware

In order to claim adverse possession in Delaware, you must openly occupy and exclusively possess the property for 20 continuous years. Meeting the following requirements demonstrates that you have adversely possessed the property:

20 Years of Continuous Possession

You must physically occupy and use the property continuously for the full 20 year statutory period. This means residing on the land or making regular use of it without extended breaks or abandonment.  

Open and Notorious Use

Your possession must be conspicuous, visible, and obvious so that the legal owner has reasonable notice that you are occupying the land adversely to their interests. Using the property for normal purposes like living, gardening, farming, etc demonstrates open use.

Exclusive Use and Occupation

You must possess and use the entire property exclusively, not just a portion. Sharing possession, or allowing the owner access could disrupt the exclusivity and continuity requirements.  

Paying Property Taxes

Paying the property taxes on the land for the full 20 year period can bolster an adverse possession claim. Make sure to obtain receipts for proof of payment.

Making Improvements

Making useful improvements like buildings, fencing, cultivation also helps demonstrate possession. Invest time and money improving the land as any true owner would.

The specific requirements can vary slightly by case, but satisfying these core standards is crucial for any successful adverse possession claim in Delaware. Consult a real estate attorney to be certain you meet the burden of proof before filing a lawsuit to quiet title.

Abandoned vs Unused Property

Adverse possession laws make a key distinction between abandoned and unused property. In Delaware, only abandoned property can legally be subject to adverse possession claims. Simply not using a property or leaving it vacant does not make it eligible for adverse possession.

For a property to be considered abandoned under Delaware law, the owner must have:

  • Physically left the property with no intention of returning
  • Stopped paying property taxes or maintaining the land
  • Died without legal heirs 

In other words, true abandonment means the owner has relinquished all rights and claims to the property. They've given up any duties or responsibilities for it. 

Unused property still has a verifiable owner who intends to keep it and can return at any time. The property hasn't been discarded or deserted. Even occasional use, like seasonal vacation homes, keeps ownership active. 

Adverse possession claims rely on demonstrating that the original owner has abandoned the property. Using an unused but not legally abandoned property does not meet the requirements for adverse possession in Delaware. Attempting to claim unused property usually results in trespassing charges.

The continuous 20-year occupancy requirement proves abandonment in adverse possession cases. If the original owner was still engaged with the property, they would have taken legal action to remove the occupying party long before 20 years passed.

Claiming Adverse Possession in Delaware

To claim adverse possession in Delaware, you must follow these legal procedures:

  • Occupy the property continuously for 20 years. This means using the property as an owner would, such as living in a house, farming land, operating a business, etc. 
  • Pay all property taxes on the land during the 20 year occupancy period. Keep records of the tax payments made.
  • Make improvements to the property like buildings, fences, gardens, drainage, etc. Keep receipts for materials purchased or work performed. Photos over time can also help document changes made.
  • Maintain the property by mowing, landscaping, making repairs, etc. Document these maintenance activities.
  • You can file a claim before 20 years is up to get a court order confirming your right to eventually claim ownership if uninterrupted occupation continues. However, you must wait the full 20 years to claim ownership.
  • Once the 20 year occupancy requirement is met, file a claim in court for adverse possession including all documentation gathered to prove continuous occupancy and use of the property as the rightful owner for 20 years. 
  • A judge will review the evidence and make a determination about granting adverse possession. Witness testimony may also be included.
  • If successful, the court will issue a new deed granting ownership of the adversely possessed property. The original owner's title is extinguished.
  • Hiring a real estate attorney is highly recommended to ensure proper legal procedures are followed when filing an adverse possession claim.

Removing Squatters

If you find someone has moved onto your vacant property without your permission, you have the right as the property owner to remove them. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Document the squatters' presence on your property with photographs and video if possible. This will help support your claim during the eviction process.
  • Serve written notice to the squatters that they are trespassing on your property illegally. In most states, including Delaware, you must provide adequate written notice before proceeding with filing an eviction lawsuit. Check your state laws on proper notice requirements.
  • File an eviction lawsuit against the squatters. You will need to file in your county court and go through the formal eviction process. Hire a real estate lawyer to assist with filing the proper paperwork and representing you in court if the squatters try to fight the eviction.  
  • Obtain an eviction order from the court once the legal proceedings are complete. The eviction order gives the squatters a deadline to vacate the property or be forcibly removed by law enforcement.
  • Coordinate with law enforcement to have the squatters physically removed from the property if they do not leave voluntarily by the deadline given in the eviction order. Sheriff's deputies or police officers can legally compel the squatters to leave once the court has ruled in your favor.

The proper legal eviction process maintains your rights as the property owner without resorting to "self-help" evictions that could place you in legal jeopardy. Consult with a real estate lawyer to ensure you follow the right protocols under your state laws. With an eviction order and law enforcement on your side, you can rightfully reclaim your property from unwanted squatters.

Preventing Adverse Possession 

If you own property in Delaware that has been unused or vacant for some time, you'll want to take steps to prevent adverse possession by squatters. Here are some tips:

Secure the property against trespassers: 

Make sure all entry points like doors and windows are properly locked and secured. Consider installing alarms, cameras, or other security measures as needed. Put up signage that indicates the property is private and monitored. 

Regularly monitor the property: 

Drive by or walk the property on a frequent basis to check for any unauthorized entry or occupation. If you live far away, consider hiring someone local to periodically inspect the property. Document each inspection. Quickly address any issues found.

Pay property taxes on time: 

Pay all property taxes when due and avoid letting any liens accrue. Tax delinquency can complicate ownership and make it easier for a squatter to try and claim the property. Keep records of all tax payments.

Address issues promptly: 

If you find any squatters or trespassers, take action right away. Serve written notice that they are illegally occupying the property. Call the police if they refuse to leave. Work with a lawyer to file formal eviction proceedings. 

Make improvements periodically: 

Making token improvements to the property demonstrates ownership and can help defeat adverse possession claims. Simple fixes like repainting, landscaping, or minor repairs go a long way.

Taking these preventative measures will make it much harder for anyone to successfully claim adverse possession of your Delaware property. Be vigilant and don't let 20 years go by without asserting your ownership rights.

Boundaries and Partial Claims 

When seeking to claim adverse possession, an important consideration is whether you want to claim the entire property or just a portion of it. In Delaware, it is possible to claim adverse possession of only part of a property. This often comes up in boundary disputes between neighbors.  

For example, if you have maintained a garden bed over the property line of the adjacent vacant lot for 20 years, you may be able to claim adverse possession of that portion of land. However, you would not be able to claim the entire vacant lot through partial adverse possession.

To claim a partial area of land through adverse possession, you must meet all the normal requirements: continuous occupation, paying taxes, and making improvements. The occupation and use of the partial area must be open and obvious to qualify. 

If a squatter has only occupied a shed on the property but not the entire lot, they may be able to claim adverse possession of the land immediately surrounding the shed through partial adverse possession. However, they would likely not be able to claim adverse possession of the entire lot.

When it comes to boundary disputes between neighbors, adverse possession may be used to resolve an overlap of property lines. For example, if your fence or driveway has extended over the property line for over 20 years, you may be able to claim that portion of the neighbor's land.

Overall, adverse possession can apply to a portion of land in Delaware. However, the occupation must meet the normal adverse possession requirements and be confined to a definable area. Partial adverse possession does not give squatter's rights to the entire property, only the occupied portion.

Government Land

Adverse possession claims cannot be made on property owned by the government in Delaware. This includes federal, state, and local government entities. 

The rationale behind prohibiting adverse possession claims on government land is that governments require flexibility in utilizing properties to best serve public interests. Allowing squatters to acquire ownership could impede government operations and access to public land.

Some examples of protected government properties are parks, nature preserves, roads, military bases, public buildings, vacant lots, and any other land owned by government agencies. Even if a squatter tried occupying government land for 20+ years in Delaware, they would have no legal claim for adverse possession.

The government also reserves the right to remove unauthorized occupants from any government-owned properties at their discretion, regardless of how long the unauthorized occupation has occurred. Squatters on government land can face fines or criminal charges for trespassing if they do not voluntarily vacate the property when required.

Overall, attempting to claim adverse possession or squatter's rights on any federal, state, local, or municipal government properties in Delaware is legally prohibited. The government retains full ownership and rights over public land holdings regardless of the duration of unauthorized occupation.

Adverse Possession Case Studies 

Adverse possession cases in Delaware have set precedents that define how the law is applied. Here are some notable examples:

Banks v. Schrock (2014): This case involved a man who was forced to hand over title for a $125,000 parcel of Delaware beachfront land to his neighbor after losing an adverse possession lawsuit. The neighbor had used the land for 20 years by installing a sprinkler system and planting trees. The original owner took no actions to stop the use during that time. This case demonstrates that continuous occupation for 20 years can override legal title.

Hill v. Bailey (1985): In this case, Hill fenced in a portion of adjacent property owned by Bailey and used it exclusively for 20 years. Bailey took no action to stop Hill's use. The court awarded Hill title to the fenced portion through adverse possession. This shows partial adverse possession is possible in Delaware.  

Burke v. Smith (2005): Burke claimed adverse possession of a lakefront property, stating he had exclusively used it for 25 years. However, Smith provided evidence of periodic maintenance and use of the land. The court ruled against Burke, finding his use was not continuous for 20 years. This case shows the challenges of proving continuous occupation.

State Dept. of Transportation v. Powell (1992): The state transportation department sought to claim adverse possession of a small triangle of land used for a highway ramp for over 20 years. However, the court ruled that sovereign entities cannot adversely possess private land. This case established that adverse possession does not apply to government-owned land in Delaware.

These examples showcase how squatter's rights have been interpreted by Delaware courts. Understanding precedent helps determine the viability of an adverse possession claim. Most cases come down to properly proving continuous and exclusive use for 20 or more years.

Squatters’ Rights in Delaware

Adverse possession, commonly known as squatters' rights, allows someone to gain legal ownership of an abandoned property if they occupy it continuously for a statutory period of time. In Delaware, this time period is 20 years. In order to claim adverse possession, the squatter must reside on the property for 20 years without permission, openly occupying and controlling the premises as if they were the owner. They must also pay all property taxes during that time.  

Making visible improvements and maintaining the property helps demonstrate ownership and control. The rightful owner can take legal action to remove squatters at any time during the statutory period. However, if 20 years lapse, the squatter may be able to claim legal ownership of the property through adverse possession.

It's important for property owners to understand these laws and take precautions to prevent adverse possession. Checking on vacant properties regularly, paying taxes on time, and securing entry points can help stop squatters from occupying the land. For abandoned properties, it's advisable to take action within 20 years to reclaim ownership. 

Adverse possession laws vary by state, but their purpose remains the same to discourage abandoned properties and reward those who maintain and improve vacant land. By understanding property rights in Delaware, both property owners and squatters can avoid legal disputes down the road. While adverse possession can be a complicated process, being informed is the first step to protecting your interests.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does adverse possession take in Delaware?

In Delaware, adverse possession requires a continuous occupation for a period of 20 years. The possession must be open, notorious, exclusive, and without the owner's permission.

How do I evict a squatter in Delaware?

To evict a squatter in Delaware, the property owner must first serve a notice to quit, giving the squatter the chance to leave voluntarily. If the squatter remains, the owner must file an eviction lawsuit in court. Following a court order, law enforcement can remove the squatter if they do not vacate willingly.

What is the easement law in Delaware?

Easement laws in Delaware allow for the use of someone else’s property for a specific purpose, like accessing a road or utility lines. Easements can be created through written agreements, necessity, or through continuous and apparent use over a period of 20 years, similar to adverse possession.

What is the shortest time for adverse possession?

The shortest statutory period for adverse possession varies by jurisdiction. In Delaware, the required period is 20 years, but other states may have shorter periods, with some as few as 7 to 10 years.

How do I get around adverse possession?

To prevent adverse possession claims, property owners should regularly inspect their property, address any unauthorized use immediately, post "No Trespassing" signs, secure clear title deeds, and consider legally documenting any permitted use of their property to avoid implied easement rights.

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