Tennessee Squatters’ Rights & Adverse Possession Laws - 2024

What are Squatters and Squatter's Rights?

A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned or unoccupied property or land without the permission of the owner. They have no legal right to be there and are considered trespassers. Squatter's rights, also known as adverse possession, refer to a law that allows a squatter to potentially gain legal ownership of the property they are occupying after living there continuously for a certain period of time.

Each state has its own adverse possession laws that specify the requirements squatters must meet to make an ownership claim. In Tennessee, a squatter must live on the property openly, continuously, and exclusively for a minimum of 7 years before having the right to file a lawsuit to claim legal ownership through adverse possession. 

Additionally, the squatter's possession has to be "hostile" meaning they are occupying the land as if it belongs to them, without permission from the rightful owner. They must also pay any relevant property taxes on the land during those continuous 7 years. Adverse possession laws were originally intended to ensure that property that is abandoned or neglected by an owner can be put to productive use by others.

Why Do Squatters Have Rights in Tennessee?

Adverse possession laws, sometimes referred to as "squatter's rights", have a long history dating back hundreds of years to English common law. The intention behind these laws was to make sure land was being actively used and not sitting idle or abandoned. 

In Tennessee, like in most other states, these laws are still on the books today. The reasoning is that if a property owner isn't making use of or monitoring their land, and a squatter lives on it openly and takes care of it for a certain period of time, the squatter can make a legal claim to obtain ownership of the property.

Specifically in Tennessee, the time period is 7 years. If a squatter resides on a property for 7 continuous years without the legal owner removing them or challenging their presence, the squatter can file a lawsuit and potentially gain legal ownership through a court order. 

So in essence, adverse possession laws were created to promote the productive use of land and prevent absentee ownership. If an owner is neglecting their property taxes or maintenance, and a squatter puts in the time and effort to live on and improve the land, the law provides a process for them to potentially gain legal possession.

Requirements for Adverse Possession in Tennessee 

In order for a squatter to claim ownership of a property through adverse possession in Tennessee, they must meet specific requirements. The key requirements under Tennessee adverse possession law are:

Time Period

The squatter must occupy the property for a continuous 7 years without the owner's permission. The time period starts when the squatter first occupies the land.  

Type of Possession

The squatter's possession must be open, notorious, hostile, actual, exclusive, and continuous for the full 7 years. This means it must be obvious that the squatter lives there (open and notorious), against the owner's will (hostile), physically occupying the land (actual), not shared with anyone else (exclusive), and uninterrupted for the full time period (continuous).

Payment of Taxes

The squatter must pay the property taxes during the entire 7 year period. The squatter can't claim any time period during which the owner paid the taxes. Paying taxes helps demonstrate the squatter's claim to ownership.

The squatter must meet all these requirements for the entire 7 year period in Tennessee. If the owner takes any legal action to remove the squatter, the clock restarts. After 7 years, the squatter can file a "quiet title" lawsuit to legalize their ownership of the property.

How Long Does it Take to Claim Adverse Possession in Tennessee?

In order to claim adverse possession in Tennessee, a squatter must occupy the property continuously for a period of 7 years. This means physically living on or making use of the land for 7 full years without interruption. 

The 7 year time period is strictly enforced in Tennessee adverse possession cases. Even one day short of the 7 years will not qualify. The occupation by the squatter must also be open and obvious to the legal owner and community during this entire 7 year period. They cannot try to hide the fact they are squatting on the land.

It's important to note that after 7 years of continuous, open occupation, the squatter must proactively file a lawsuit to claim adverse possession. It is not automatically granted once the time period has elapsed. The squatter must file what is known as a "quiet title" lawsuit requesting the court award them legal ownership based on the doctrine of adverse possession.

So in summary, the specific time period to claim adverse possession in Tennessee is 7 full years of open, obvious, and continuous occupation. The squatter must also file a quiet title lawsuit to assert their adverse possession claim after this time. No shortcuts or exceptions are made to the 7 year requirement.

Can Property Owners Remove Squatters?

If you discover squatters on your property in Tennessee, you will need to go through the proper legal process to remove them. You cannot simply force them out or lock them out of the property. Here are the steps a property owner can take:

Call the police

The first step is to notify local law enforcement and make a report about the illegal trespassing. The police can come remove the squatters immediately if they are caught in the act.

Serve a notice to vacate

To begin the formal eviction process, the property owner must serve the squatters with a 30-day notice to vacate. This gives them time to leave on their own before going to court.

File for eviction

If the squatters do not leave after 30 days, the next step is to file for a formal eviction proceeding in county court. This involves submitting an eviction complaint and scheduling a court hearing.

Attending the court hearing

The judge will hear arguments from both sides and then issue a ruling at the hearing. If the ruling favors the property owner, the sheriff can forcibly remove the squatters.

Obtain a writ of possession

After receiving a favorable judgment, the property owner must obtain this document which authorizes the sheriff to remove the squatters from the premises. 

Call the sheriff

The sheriff will then coordinate a time to meet at the property and forcibly remove the squatters if they are still there. The sheriff will bring law enforcement to handle the removal.

**Property owners cannot take matters into their own hands by forcefully removing the squatters or turning off utility services in an attempt to drive them out. This is illegal until granted by the court order.** The proper legal process must be followed to remove squatters from a property in Tennessee. With the right documentation, the sheriff can legally force them to leave.

What if a Squatter Gets Injured on the Property?

If a squatter is injured while occupying a property without the owner's permission, it raises questions around liability. The property owner may be concerned about being held responsible for injuries sustained by the unauthorized occupant. 

In general, property owners in Tennessee have a duty to exercise reasonable care to keep their premises safe. However, the legal duty owed to a trespasser is lower than that owed to an invited guest. Property owners must refrain from willfully or wantonly causing injury to trespassers.

If the property owner fails to remedy a known dangerous condition that injures a squatter, the owner could potentially face liability. Examples might include an unmarked open pit on the land, a vicious dog, or a dangerously dilapidated structure.  

However, if the squatter is injured due to their own negligent behavior, the property owner would likely not be liable. Squatters enter properties at their own risk and have a duty to take reasonable precautions for their own safety.

Ultimately, liability depends on the unique circumstances of each situation. Property owners concerned about injury liability should take steps to secure vacant buildings from unauthorized entry and post no trespassing signs. Consulting a local attorney can also help clarify liability issues.

How Can Property Owners Prevent Squatting?

Most property owners want to avoid having squatters take up residence in their homes or on their land. Here are some tips to help deter squatters in Tennessee:

  • Maintain your property - Keep the house, yard, and land well-maintained, with no signs of abandonment. Trim vegetation, mow the lawn, make repairs, and keep things tidy. Squatters target properties that appear unoccupied.
  • Visit the property frequently - If you have a vacant home or undeveloped land, make an effort to check on it regularly. Drive by or inspect it every couple of weeks. Squatters like to move in when the owner is absent.  
  • Install locks - Secure all entry points with high-quality locks. Lock windows, doors, sheds, barns, and gates. This makes it harder for squatters to just walk in.
  • Post “No Trespassing” signs - Clearly post “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs around the perimeter. Also have your contact information visible in case of emergency.
  • Alert neighbors - Let neighbors know the property is not abandoned. Ask them to report any suspicious activity. Give them your contact info.
  • Hire a property manager - If traveling or unable to frequently check the property, consider hiring a property manager to monitor it in your absence.
  • Install security cameras/lighting - Security cameras or motion-sensor lighting around the property can deter squatters. It also documents any illegal activity.
  • Securely store valuables/equipment - Remove any expensive items or equipment that may attract squatters. Make sure sheds, garages, and outbuildings are emptied and locked up.
  • Check with police - Ask local law enforcement to add the property to patrols. Some police departments may check on vacant properties.

Taking preventative measures can help save property owners significant time and expense if squatters do attempt to move in. Act quickly at the first signs of an intruder.

Quiet Title Lawsuit for Adverse Possession  

To legally claim ownership of a property through adverse possession in Tennessee, squatters must file a lawsuit known as a “quiet title” action. This legal proceeding establishes the squatter as the property's rightful owner and ends any disputes over the title.

The squatter must prove to the court that they meet all requirements for adverse possession. This includes showing they occupied the property for the statutory period of 7 years in an open, continuous, hostile, notorious, and exclusive manner. They must also prove they paid property taxes during that time. 

The squatter will have to produce evidence like photos, home improvements, tax records, utility bills, and witness statements. If the squatter can prove their case with clear and convincing evidence, the court will likely rule in their favor. The deed to the property will be transferred to them, granting full ownership rights.

If the owner tries to evict the squatter during this process, the squatter can use adverse possession as a defense. The property owner can also file their own lawsuit to eject the squatter and quiet title if a case isn't already pending.

It's important for both property owners and potential adverse possessors to understand quiet title lawsuits and their role in asserting squatter's rights. Having the proper evidence and legal counsel is key to prevailing in court over disputed ownership.

Other States' Squatter's Rights Laws  

Adverse possession laws exist in some form in every U.S. state, but the specific requirements and time periods vary. Here's a comparison of some key details:

  • California - 5 years of continuous occupation  
  • Texas - 3 to 10 years depending on whether taxes are paid
  • Florida - 7 years of open, continuous possession 
  • New York - 10 years of actual, open and notorious possession
  • Illinois - 20 years of hostile, actual, visible, open and notorious possession
  • Pennsylvania - 21 years of actual, continuous, exclusive, visible, notorious, distinct and hostile possession

In most states, the time period required ranges from 5 to 30 years. Paying property taxes is also a common requirement. Some states have additional specifics, like cultivation requirements in California. Overall, the laws aim to balance protecting private property rights and not letting land go abandoned. Understanding the laws in your particular state is crucial. Consult a local real estate attorney for assistance.

What to Do if You Discover Squatters

If you find squatters occupying your property in Tennessee without your permission, here are some steps to take:

1. Document everything. 

Take photos and video of the squatters on your property. Also document any damage or changes they have made.  

2. Call the police. 

File a report about the illegal trespassing. However, police may not physically remove the squatters if they claim "adverse possession."

3. Serve written notice. 

Provide the squatters with written notice that they are trespassing and must leave within 30 days. Send it via certified mail and post a copy on the property.

4. File for eviction. 

If the squatters don't leave after 30 days, file for a formal eviction with your local court. This starts the legal process to remove them.  

5. Attend the court hearing. 

The judge will set a court date to hear your case and the squatters' response. Be prepared to present documentation and evidence.

6. Receive the court order. 

If the judge rules in your favor, the sheriff can assist in removing the squatters if they still refuse to leave. Their possessions can also be removed from the property.

7. Take preventative measures. 

After removing squatters, consider blocking entry points, frequent property checks, no trespassing signs, lights, game cameras, and fencing to deter future squatting.

Following these steps can help resolve a squatter situation through the proper legal channels in Tennessee. Act promptly when discovering squatters to avoid claims of adverse possession later on. Consult a real estate attorney for guidance navigating unique squatter circumstances.

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