South Dakota Squatters’ Rights & Adverse Possession Laws - 2024

Definition of Squatters Rights in South Dakota

Squatters rights, also known as adverse possession, allow individuals to potentially gain legal ownership of abandoned or unoccupied property through continuous, open and hostile use and occupation for a statutory period. In South Dakota, adverse possession claims require 20 years of continuous and uninterrupted possession of the property in order to be valid. 

The doctrine of adverse possession essentially means that a person who is not the legal property owner occupies the land without the owner's permission. To meet the requirements for adverse possession in South Dakota, the occupation must be open and obvious to anyone, indicating that the occupier is possessing the land as if they were the rightful owner. The possession must also be hostile, meaning it is without the legal owner's permission. Merely occupying a property with the owner's permission does not establish any claim of ownership.

In addition to 20 years of continuous occupation, the adverse possessor must pay all property taxes on the land during that time. They must also make visible improvements to the property through building, farming, fencing, etc. If these conditions are met for the statutory period, the adverse possessor may be able to make an ownership claim.

Requirements for Claiming Squatters Rights 

To establish a claim for adverse possession or "squatters rights" in South Dakota, the occupation of the property must be open, continuous, and exclusive for the entire 20-year period. This means:

Open and Notorious Occupation

The possession must be obvious and known to the legal owner and the public. The squatter must make no attempt to hide their occupation.

Continuous Occupation

The squatter must reside on the property without any extended gaps or lapses. Even short vacations can interrupt the continuity. 

Exclusive Occupation

The squatter must exclude all others from using or possessing the property. They cannot share occupation with the legal owner, tenants, or licensees.

In addition, the squatter should:

Make Improvements

Making major improvements like building structures or cultivating land demonstrates intention to claim ownership. Small repairs and maintenance may not be enough.

Pay Property Taxes

Paying property taxes strengthens an adverse possession claim by behavior like a true owner. The squatter can file an affidavit to receive the tax bills.

Meeting all the requirements for the statutory period establishes a claim for legal ownership through adverse possession. The squatter can file a quiet title lawsuit to compel transfer of title.

Abandoned vs Unoccupied Property

In South Dakota, there is a legal distinction between abandoned property and unoccupied property when it comes to adverse possession claims. 

Abandoned property refers to a property where the legal owner has surrendered all rights and interests, indicating they no longer wish to use or claim the property. This could include failure to pay taxes, failure to maintain the property, and failure to visit or make any use of the property over an extended period of time. 

Unoccupied simply means the property is not currently being lived in or actively used by the legal owner. For example, a vacation home that sits vacant most of the year while the owners only visit seasonally would be considered unoccupied. However, the owner is still exercising ownership rights and has not surrendered claim to the property.

In South Dakota, adverse possession claims can be made on both abandoned and unoccupied properties, as long as the squatter meets all the requirements. The fact that a property is unoccupied rather than abandoned does not prevent a squatter from taking legal possession after 20 continuous years of open, obvious use and occupation, provided the squatter pays taxes and makes improvements as if they were the rightful owner.

So in summary, South Dakota adverse possession laws allow claims on both abandoned and unoccupied properties, as long as all the requirements are met over the statutory period of 20 years. The key factor is the lack of use or rights exercised by the legal owner, rather than whether the property is considered abandoned or unoccupied.

Out of State Owners

Claiming squatters rights can be more complicated when the legal property owner lives out of state. However, the location of the owner does not prevent squatters from making an adverse possession claim in South Dakota.  

The risks and challenges include:

  • Out of state owners may be less likely to regularly check on or visit the property, allowing squatters to occupy it for longer periods undiscovered. However, owners still have a duty to monitor their property.
  • Serving legal notices to out of state owners can be more difficult. Squatters may have to make diligent efforts to locate and serve the owners to establish their claim.
  • Out of state owners could argue the 20 year clock required for adverse possession should be paused or reset if they were unable to access the property for periods of time. However, this depends on specific circumstances. 
  • If an out of state owner hires a property manager, it could make monitoring trespassing and removing squatters easier. The property manager acts as their agent.
  • Distance makes it harder for owners to maintain the property, pay taxes on time, and make their ownership known. This could strengthen a squatter's claim if the owner gives the appearance of abandoning the property.

Overall, living out of state does not relinquish an owner's property rights or make adverse possession easier to establish. But practical challenges like distance and lack of oversight could work in the squatter's favor. Owners need to take steps to actively manage their property and protect their rights.

Paying Taxes to Establish Squatters Rights 

In order to make a valid claim for squatters rights in South Dakota, the squatter must pay all property taxes that come due during the required 20-year occupancy period. South Dakota law states that payment of taxes is one criteria required to prove hostile, open, and continuous possession of the property.

The squatter will need to find out when property taxes are due each year. This can be done by contacting the county treasurer's office where the property is located. The treasurer maintains tax records and can provide details on the tax amount and payment deadlines. 

Taxes are typically due annually. The squatter should make sure to pay the full amount due by the listed due date, keeping receipts as proof of payment. Banks will not issue a mortgage on a property being squatted, so the squatter will need to pay the taxes from their own funds.

If the squatter fails to pay taxes in a given year during the 20-year occupancy period, it can jeopardize their entire claim to the property. The owner may be able to use the lapse in tax payment as evidence the squatter has not maintained continuous possession, cutting short the attempt to gain legal ownership.

Reclaiming Property as Owner

Unlike some states, South Dakota does not have a statute of limitations on adverse possession claims. This means that even after 20 years of continuous occupation, the original owner still has the legal right to reclaim their property. 

However, after such a long period of time it becomes extremely difficult to evict a squatter. The squatter will have established themselves as the "owner" in the eyes of neighbors and even government officials. The original owner will have to go through a formal court process to prove their legal claim to the property. This involves filing a civil lawsuit against the squatter and proving that the use was hostile and without permission in order to invalidate any potential adverse possession claim.

The court will issue a formal eviction order if the owner is successful in proving their claim. If the squatter refuses to leave after being served with the eviction order, the county sheriff's department can be called upon to forcibly remove them from the premises. 

A squatter does not have a legal right to remain on property they don't own. However, they can make the eviction process long, difficult and expensive for the true property owner after many years of illegal occupation. The best protection is to be vigilant about inspecting your property and taking swift legal action at the first signs of trespassing.

Damages and Liability

If a squatter damages the property during their occupation, the legal owner can sue the squatter for damages once they reclaim possession. Squatters have a duty to maintain the property and can be held liable for any deterioration that occurs due to their negligence or improper use. 

In South Dakota, if the owner chooses to evict the squatter, any damages to the property the squatter caused must be listed in the complaint. The squatter will be given an opportunity to remedy or repair the damages before the court orders eviction.

If the squatter fails to make repairs after given notice, the owner can choose to sue the squatter for:

  • Cost of hiring professionals to repair damages
  • Loss of value to the property 
  • Loss of rental income
  • Court and legal fees
  • Any additional costs related to damage or neglect

The owner does not need to wait until after eviction to file a lawsuit for damages against the squatter. A civil suit can be filed as soon as damages occur.

It is important for property owners to thoroughly document and photograph any damage that occurs during a squatter's occupation, in order to support a lawsuit to recover costs. Squatters have a responsibility to avoid damaging properties they occupy. Extensive damage could negatively impact their potential claim for adverse possession.

Preventing Squatters Rights

As a property owner, there are several steps you can take to protect your land and prevent squatters from claiming rights:

  • Conduct regular inspections of your property. Walk the grounds at least once every few months and look for any signs of trespassing or unauthorized use. Things like moved personal items, trash, makeshift furniture, vehicles, or tents can be red flags. 
  • Post "No Trespassing" signs around the perimeter of your property. These signs make it clear that any entry is prohibited.
  • Pay property taxes and insurance premiums on time to avoid giving the appearance that the property has been abandoned.
  • If you discover a trespasser, immediately serve them with written notice demanding that they vacate the premises. Make sure to keep documentation.
  • Monitor public records regularly for any unauthorized liens or judgments recorded against your property by a squatter. This can be an early tip off.
  • Hire a house sitter or ask a trusted friend/family member to check on the property periodically if you travel often or live out of state.
  • Keep the exterior maintained by mowing, landscaping, etc so it looks actively occupied.
  • Consider fencing, gates, lighting or other measures to prevent unwanted access.

Taking proactive measures can help protect your property ownership and prevent lengthy legal battles down the road. Act quickly at the first sign of trespassing.

Downsides of Squatters Rights 

Claiming squatters rights can be risky and come with significant downsides that should be carefully considered. 

Possibility of Eviction

Even after many years of occupying a property, squatters may still face eviction if the owner contests their claim in court. Squatters may lose the time and money they invested in the property.

Owner Can Reclaim Property

In South Dakota, if the owner returns within 20 years, they can reclaim the property and evict the squatter, invalidating any claim to ownership.

Squatters may face criminal charges like trespassing if the owner does not accept their occupation. There may be civil lawsuits over the validity of the squatter's claim. These legal issues can be expensive to resolve.

Property Damage

If squatters cause any damage to the property, they can be sued by the owner for compensation, or even face criminal charges for vandalism.

Squatters have limited legal rights and protections in most jurisdictions. They invest time and money in a property without strong legal guarantees.


Squatters live under constant threat of eviction as the property owner could return or contest their claim at any time, even after 20+ years. There is little stability or peace of mind.

Other Options Exist

There are other ways to legally access property that avoid the risks of squatting, like renting, buying distressed properties, or waiting to buy legitimately.

Squatters should carefully weigh these risks before attempting to claim rights to an abandoned property in South Dakota. While adverse possession is legal, it carries significant downsides. Consulting with a lawyer can help evaluate if it is the right option.

Location Specific Laws

Squatters rights laws can vary slightly depending on the specific county or municipality. Some key things to be aware of:

  • In Sioux Falls, there are additional restrictions on adverse possession claims for residential properties. Squatters must prove "good faith" belief that they had legal claim to the property. 
  • Rapid City does not allow adverse possession claims on properties designated as "historic landmarks" without express written consent from the owner.
  • Laws may differ for tribal lands and reservations. Squatters should consult with legal counsel familiar with tribal laws before attempting an adverse possession claim.
  • Some rural counties have shorter time periods required for continuous occupation (15 years instead of 20 years). Check with the county recorder's office for details.
  • Certain neighborhoods or developments may have HOA rules prohibiting adverse possession. Again, check local laws before attempting a claim.

For specific details on squatters rights laws in your city or county, consult with a local real estate attorney familiar with property laws in that jurisdiction. The state bar association can provide referrals. Some counties also provide property guides explaining key laws and procedures. Checking official county websites is recommended.

Key Takeaways

  1. In South Dakota, squatters rights or adverse possession requires 20 years of continuous, open, and hostile occupation of property without the owner's permission, potentially allowing the squatter to claim legal ownership.
  2. To claim ownership under adverse possession in South Dakota, the squatter must openly, continuously, and exclusively occupy the property for 20 years, pay all property taxes, and make visible improvements like building or farming.
  3. South Dakota law distinguishes between abandoned property, where the owner has relinquished rights, and unoccupied property, which is not currently used by the owner but still under their ownership. Both types are subject to adverse possession claims.
  4. Out-of-state property owners face unique challenges in preventing adverse possession claims, such as difficulty in monitoring the property and serving legal notices, which could inadvertently strengthen a squatter's claim.
  5. Squatters must pay all property taxes during the 20-year occupation period to establish a claim for adverse possession in South Dakota, demonstrating behavior like that of a true property owner.
  6. In South Dakota, there's no statute of limitations on adverse possession claims, meaning original owners can attempt to reclaim their property even after 20 years, but the process is complex and involves a formal court procedure.
  7. Property owners can protect against squatters by conducting regular inspections, posting "No Trespassing" signs, paying property taxes on time, and taking swift legal action upon the first signs of trespassing.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is adverse possession in South Dakota?

Adverse possession in South Dakota is a legal doctrine that allows a person to claim ownership of a piece of land under certain conditions. These conditions include continuous, open, and hostile occupation of the property for a period of 20 years, during which the squatter must pay all relevant property taxes and make visible improvements to the land.

Squatting, or occupying abandoned or unoccupied property without the owner's permission, can lead to legal ownership through adverse possession in South Dakota, provided all legal requirements are met over a continuous period of 20 years. However, squatting without fulfilling these conditions is not a legal means to acquire property and may result in legal action against the squatter.

What are the adverse possession laws in South Dakota?

The adverse possession laws in South Dakota require a squatter to openly, continuously, and exclusively occupy a property for 20 years. The occupation must be hostile (without the owner's permission), and the squatter must pay all property taxes and make significant improvements to the property during this period to potentially claim legal ownership.

What is the simple definition of adverse possession?

Adverse possession is a legal principle that allows a person to claim ownership of land they have occupied without the owner's permission, under certain conditions, over a specified period. This usually involves the occupier treating the land as their own, through actions like paying taxes and making improvements, for a continuous and legally defined time frame.

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