First, it’s essential to understand the distinction between squatting and trespassing. The main difference is that a trespasser has been made aware that they are unwelcome on a property, whereas a squatter has simply taken up residence without any warning to leave. Although the distinction may seem minimal, trespassing is considered a criminal offense, while squatting is a civil matter.
Squatters may claim legal ownership of the property they are occupying after a certain amount of time has passed through a process called adverse possession. In Georgia, squatters may claim adverse possession after 20 years of continuous occupation or just seven years with a color of title. Color of title means that the settler has a document or instrument they claim gives them a right to the property but cannot be fully verified due to some defect. So, if the true owner does not successfully remove the squatter after 20 years, they may claim a legal right to the land.
However, the squatter’s occupation of the property must satisfy the following conditions.
- Continuous: The occupation must be uninterrupted for 20 years (or 7 with color of title), meaning the squatter cannot leave and return.
- Open and notorious: The squatter must be living out in the open in a manner that would be apparent to anyone who visits the property.
- Exclusive: The squatter must be alone and cannot live with a group of other squatters.
- Actual: The squatter must display some control over the property and treat the land as if you actually live there.
- Hostile: The squatter’s occupation must be without permission and go against the right of the true owner.
As long as each of those conditions is met, the squatter may claim adverse possession after 20 years and enjoy all the rights and privileges granted to any other property owner.
- Serve an Eviction Notice
- Call the Sheriff
- Start the Eviction Proceedings
- Request a Writ of Possession
If you discover a squatter on your property, you should be careful with how you approach them. Even though they are on your land without permission, you shouldn’t attempt to forcibly remove them on your own in case the matter is brought to court. Instead, you should remain calm and take the proper precautions to remove them legally. Here are the steps you should take.
1. Serve an Eviction Notice
As soon as you identify an unwanted squatter on your property, you should serve them with an eviction notice. Georgia law does not specify the amount of time you must give the tenant to leave, so it can be as little as 24 hours or as much as 60 days.
2. Call the Sheriff
If the squatter still refuses to leave, you should call the local sheriff’s office and alert them of the situation. They may be able to confront the squatter and get them to leave, saving you the headache of taking it to court.
3. Start the Eviction Proceedings
Once the period stated on the notice to vacate elapses, you can begin the eviction proceedings and initiate a hearing process. The squatter has the right to challenge the eviction. However, if you can verify your ownership of the property, they likely won’t have much of a case. It only becomes more complicated if adverse possession comes into play.
4. Request a Writ of Possession
If the court rules in your favor, you can request a writ of possession, which gives the squatter seven days to vacate the property, or the sheriff will be called in to remove them. However, be aware that self-help evictions are illegal in Georgia, which means you can’t remove the squatter on your own through force or by changing the locks, shutting off utilities, etc.
Even though squatters are occupying property that does not belong to them, that doesn’t automatically make them criminals. They do have rights just like a regular tenant who pays rent, and you must honor those rights to avoid facing legal consequences. However, the process for evicting squatters in Georgia is pretty straightforward, so as long as you adhere to the necessary protocols, you should be able to remove them without issue.