Wisconsin Squatters’ Rights & Adverse Possession Laws - 2024

Introduction to Squatters’ Rights in Wisconsin

Squatters’ rights, also known as adverse possession, is a legal concept that allows a person to gain ownership of a property without purchasing it. Instead, the person occupies an abandoned, vacant, or unimproved piece of land for a statutory period of time. 

The doctrine of adverse possession has its roots in English common law and was initially conceived as a way to make sure land was put to productive use. The thinking was that if a property owner wasn't utilizing their land, it was better for someone else to claim it and make use of it.

Over time, adverse possession made its way into the legal systems of many states in America, including Wisconsin. The requirements vary by state, but the premise is the same - if a squatter occupies a property openly, continuously, and exclusively for a certain number of years, they can make a legal claim to become the rightful owner.

The rationale behind modern adverse possession laws is twofold. First, it motivates owners to remain attentive to their property to prevent squatters. Second, it allows for the legal transfer of property to those putting it to productive use if the owner has neglected it. Overall, the goal is to make sure land is utilized and maintained.

While adverse possession often conjures images of unlawful activity, in states like Wisconsin the doctrine does provide a legal avenue for squatters to gain property rights after meeting specific requirements over an extended period of time. However, it remains controversial, given that it allows the taking of property from a legal owner.

Requirements for Adverse Possession in Wisconsin

To claim adverse possession and gain legal ownership of a property in Wisconsin, a squatter must meet several key requirements:

Continuous Occupation for 20 Years

The squatter must live on or otherwise occupy the land continuously for 20 years. This means using the property as if they were the owner - living there, storing belongings, maintaining the land, etc. Brief periods of absence are allowed, but the squatter cannot abandon the property for long stretches of time. The 20 years of continuous occupation can also be made up through "tacking" - adding on time periods from previous possessors to reach 20 years.

Hostile Possession  

The squatter's occupation must be hostile to the real property owner. They must possess the property without permission and against the rights of the actual owner. The squatter's use of the land should clearly display that they are claiming ownership rather than having the true owner's permission to be there.

Open and Notorious Possession

The squatter must occupy the land in an open and obvious way that puts the legal owner on notice. They cannot try to hide that they are living there or use the property only at night. The squatter's possession should be obvious to anyone who visits the property.

Paying Property Taxes

For the last 5 continuous years of the 20 year occupancy period, the squatter must pay any property taxes associated with the land. The taxes do not have to be paid under the squatter's name specifically.

By meeting these requirements, a squatter may be able to make an adverse possession claim in Wisconsin and gain legal ownership of the property after 20 years.

How to Claim Squatters Rights

To claim squatters rights in Wisconsin through adverse possession, you must occupy a property continuously for 20 years in an open, notorious, and hostile manner. This means visibly using the land as an owner would, without trying to hide your presence. 

It's important to document your 20 years of continuous possession in order to prove your claim. Keep detailed records like utility bills, repair receipts, photos, videos, and eyewitness statements showing you lived on the property. Pay property taxes on the land for at least 5 years and obtain receipts as proof.

When you believe you meet the adverse possession requirements, hire a real estate lawyer to make a formal claim. The lawyer can provide legal advice and guide you through the process of taking a property title. They will petition the court through a lawsuit called an action to quiet title. This compels the true owner to either accept your claim or contest it.

With the help of your lawyer, you must prove "continuous" possession over the 20 years. Short absences like vacations generally don't disrupt continuous possession, but longer periods of abandonment can weaken your claim. Providing strong documentation and evidence is key.

If the court rules in your favor, you'll obtain full legal ownership and title to the property through adverse possession! Just be aware that claiming squatters rights can be complex, and you should consult an attorney before pursuing it.

Challenges and Exceptions to Claiming Squatters Rights

Squatters in Wisconsin may face challenges and exceptions that prevent them from legally establishing adverse possession. Some key challenges and exceptions include:

Government-Owned Land Cannot Be Adversely Possessed

One major exception is that squatters cannot adversely possess land owned by the government. This includes municipal, state, and federal government property. Any attempt by squatters to occupy government land would be considered trespassing. Government entities are specifically excluded from laws allowing adverse possession claims.

Property Owned by Minors or Disabled Persons 

If a property owner is considered to be under a legal disability, such as being a minor child or someone who is mentally ill, the 20-year adverse possession time period does not begin. The clock only starts once the disability is removed. This prevents squatters from taking advantage of vulnerable property owners.

Difficulty Proving 20 Years of Continuous Possession

While the time period for an adverse possession claim is 20 years in Wisconsin, squatters may have difficulty proving they occupied the property continuously during those two decades. There must be clear evidence of actual, continuous occupation and use. Occasional trespassing or visits to the property does not satisfy this legal requirement. Establishing the proof can pose challenges for squatters.

The exceptions and potential difficulties highlight that squatters do not have a clear path to legal ownership in Wisconsin. There are significant hurdles to overcome before adverse possession is legally valid. Simply occupying a property without the owner's permission does not immediately grant squatter's rights.

Removing Squatters in Wisconsin

If you find squatters occupying your property in Wisconsin, you will need to legally remove them through the eviction process before reclaiming possession of your land. Here are the steps for removing squatters from your property:

File an Eviction Lawsuit

The first step is to file an eviction lawsuit against the squatters in civil court. This formally starts the legal process to remove the trespassers. You can file the lawsuit yourself in Wisconsin small claims court if damages are under $10,000. If not, you may need to hire a real estate attorney. Gather documentation proving your ownership of the property. 

Serve Eviction Notice

After filing the lawsuit, the court will issue a summons that must be officially served to the squatters, either in person or posted conspicuously on the property. The eviction notice gives a court date and orders the squatters to appear and defend themselves.

Court Hearing & Eviction Order

On the court date, the judge hears arguments from both sides. Typically, the squatters will have no documentation giving them any legal right to live there. If the judge rules in your favor, you will receive an eviction order requiring the squatters to vacate the premises.

Call the Sheriff

If the squatters do not leave by the deadline in the eviction order (usually 5-10 days), your next step is to call the sheriff's department. Provide the sheriff with the documentation proving your lawful ownership and request their assistance in physically removing the squatters from the property. 

Secure the Property

After the sheriff removes the squatters, take immediate steps to secure your property against re-entry. Change the locks, repair any damage, and close off any entrances the squatters were using. Post no trespassing signs and monitor the property to prevent the squatters from returning.

Following this lawful process will allow you to safely and permanently remove illegal squatters from your Wisconsin property. Don't try to force them out yourself, as this could lead to violence or liable charges. Pursue official legal eviction to properly reclaim possession.

Preventing Squatters

The best way to prevent squatters from occupying your property in Wisconsin is through active property management and visible deterrents. 

Regular inspections of vacant property or residences is key. A property manager or caretaker should do a walkthrough at least once a month to check for any signs of trespassing or squatting. Look for lights on, vehicles parked on the premises, makeshift curtains in the windows, debris, trash, damage to locks or doors, or personal items left behind. Any indications that someone has accessed the property need to be dealt with immediately.

When a property sits vacant for any period of time, ensure that all entry points are securely locked and sealed off. Squatters often gain access through unsecured windows and doors. Board up windows, change the locks if necessary, and make sure gates are locked. Avoid having overgrown landscaping that could conceal access points as well.

Posting no trespassing signs around the perimeter of the property establishes clear notice that any entry is prohibited. While written notice is not legally required in Wisconsin to prosecute for trespassing, these signs give a clear visual warning. Make sure the signs are placed visibly on fencing, posts, or the exterior walls of the property. 

If a property will be vacant for an extended absence, consider hiring a property management company to check on it routinely. A property manager can schedule regular walkthroughs and even make the property appear lived-in by parking in the driveway, picking up mail, or keeping up with yard maintenance. Their oversight keeps the property in good shape and deters potential squatters.

By staying vigilant, a property owner can prevent squatters from ever gaining that initial foothold to make an adverse possession claim down the line. Deterrents combined with active oversight keeps the property secure and protected from unwanted occupants.

Squatters Rights Controversy 

While adverse possession has a long legal history, squatters rights remain controversial today. There are arguments on both sides of the issue.

Some argue that squatters rights promote the productive use of property. If a landowner neglects their property, a squatter can make use of the land, pay taxes on it, and improve it. Unused or abandoned properties can become hubs of criminal activity, so adverse possession puts the land to good use. It motivates landowners to monitor their properties and not let them fall into disrepair. 

However, others raise concerns about property rights. Landowners can fail to defend their land for many reasons, such as travel, disability, or not realizing someone is occupying it. In these cases, adverse possession may amount to unethical land grabs, taking property from rightful owners. Some see it as legally-sanctioned theft. Property owners should not lose land they wish to keep for failing to take the right legal action in time.

There are also concerns that adverse possession rewards trespassers and people acting in bad faith. In some cases, squatters intentionally occupy land knowing the owner likely will not defend it in time. They aim to take the land, rather than simply make productive use of an abandoned property.

In the modern era of extensive property records and regulations, some argue adverse possession has outlived its original intent. However, it remains an active area of real estate law. The debate continues around balancing the productive use of property with the rights of landowners.

Notable Squatters Rights Cases 

Wisconsin has seen several high-profile adverse possession cases that have helped shape the legal landscape around squatters rights. Here are some of the most significant cases:

Pine Knot Camp v. Kaminski

In this important 1985 case, a hunters' group had used a remote 195-acre parcel of land in northern Wisconsin for hunting cabins and camps over a 30-year period. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that although the group's use was open and notorious, it was not hostile or adverse enough to warrant granting them ownership through adverse possession. The case set a stricter standard for the "hostility" requirement.

Northwoods Developers Ltd. v. Goosen

Northwoods Developers sued when Goosen tried claiming adverse possession over a strip of undeveloped land that was part of Northwoods' planned subdivision. Goosen had used the land for planting corn and hunting for over 20 years. The Court ruled that Goosen could claim adverse possession because his use was truly hostile and he had paid property taxes on the land.

Bielski v. Luban

The Bielskis had used a cottage property on McConville Lake as their seasonal vacation home since the 1950s. When they tried to officially gain title to the land in 1995, the Lubans objected. The Court ultimately awarded the Bielskis ownership through adverse possession due to their long, continuous, open use of the land.

Wilcox v. Pinion

Pinion filed an adverse possession claim over an access road running across Wilcox's property that provided entry to Pinion's landlocked 40-acre parcel. She claimed to have used the road openly for 35 years. The Court ruled against Pinion's adverse possession claim, saying permissive use of an access road fails to meet the "hostile" requirement.

These major cases have shaped the application of adverse possession laws in Wisconsin over time, by clarifying the extent of occupation required and what constitutes "hostile" use. They demonstrate how Wisconsin's courts weigh these complex property disputes.

Adverse Possession Claims Data

How common are adverse possession claims in Wisconsin, and how often are they successful? Hard numbers are difficult to find, but we can look at some general trends.

The number of adverse possession lawsuits filed each year in Wisconsin appears to be relatively low. Given the long time periods required, most properties are either monitored regularly by owners or are abandoned and available for legal purchase. Squatters rights claims arise in unique circumstances when ownership is unclear. 

One law firm estimated they see 1-3 adverse possession cases per year across their multiple offices in Wisconsin. Another lawyer said he handled a "few" of these cases annually. So it seems adverse possession lawsuits number in the dozens, rather than hundreds or thousands, per year statewide.

Success rates for adverse possession also seem to be fairly low, given the stringent requirements involved. One attorney estimated the success rate at 10-25%. Another lawyer suggested only about 1 in 5 cases actually prevail if brought before a judge. Much depends on the specific facts and how well squatters can demonstrate the continuous occupancy and tax payment requirements.

The number of adverse possession claims in Wisconsin does not appear to be increasing sharply in recent years by most accounts. Some even suggest it is declining as property records and owner vigilance continue to improve. That said, there will always be some properties that fall through the cracks. As long as Wisconsin maintains its lengthy 20 year requirement, squatters rights cases are likely to remain limited and difficult to win.


Squatters rights and adverse possession laws have a long history dating back hundreds of years. While not as common today, understanding the specifics of these laws remains important for property owners and those seeking to occupy abandoned properties in Wisconsin. 

The key points to understand are:

  • Adverse possession allows a squatter to potentially gain legal ownership after 20 continuous years of hostile, open occupation and 5 years of paying property taxes in Wisconsin.
  • The clock starts when the squatter takes possession openly and hostilely. Simply trespassing on a property does not establish adverse possession.  
  • There are certain exceptions, such as government-owned land, that do not allow adverse possession claims.
  • Property owners have legal options like eviction lawsuits to remove squatters from their land if it is occupied illegally. Preventative measures can also be taken.
  • Squatters rights remain controversial, with proponents arguing it promotes the use of vacant properties and opponents stating it encourages trespassing.

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of adverse possession and squatters rights laws in Wisconsin is important whether you are a property owner, squatter, or simply interested in real estate law. While not commonly exercised today, these laws remain active and applicable in the appropriate circumstances.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are squatters rights in Wisconsin?

Squatters rights in Wisconsin, known as adverse possession, allow a person to gain legal ownership of property they have occupied without the owner's permission, under certain conditions. These conditions typically include continuous, open, notorious, exclusive, and hostile possession for a specific period.

How can squatters legally claim property in Wisconsin?

To legally claim property as a squatter in Wisconsin, the individual must occupy the property continuously for a period of 20 years. The occupation must be open, notorious (visible to anyone), exclusive (not shared with the owner or others), and hostile (without the owner's permission).

What is the required period for adverse possession in Wisconsin?

The required period for adverse possession in Wisconsin is 20 years. This means a squatter must occupy the property under the specified conditions for this duration to potentially claim legal ownership.

Is there a difference between squatters rights and trespassing in Wisconsin?

Yes, there is a significant difference. Trespassing is the illegal entry onto someone else's property without permission, which is a criminal offense. Squatters rights, or adverse possession, involve occupying a property under specific conditions that can eventually lead to legal ownership, despite the initial occupation being without the owner's permission.

Can squatters pay property taxes in Wisconsin to claim ownership?

Paying property taxes is often seen as evidence of adverse possession, demonstrating an intention to assume ownership. However, simply paying taxes on a property in Wisconsin is not sufficient on its own to claim squatters rights. The squatter must also meet all other requirements for adverse possession, including the 20-year continuous possession.

How do property owners protect against squatters in Wisconsin?

Property owners can protect against squatters by regularly inspecting their property, securing unoccupied buildings, promptly addressing any unauthorized occupants, posting clear no trespassing signs, and ensuring property taxes are paid up to date. Consulting with a real estate attorney for more tailored strategies is also advisable.

Property owners can serve squatters with a notice to vacate and, if necessary, file an eviction lawsuit in court. If squatters claim adverse possession after occupying the property for 20 years, property owners might need to challenge the claim legally, requiring the assistance of an attorney specialized in real estate law.

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