Adverse possession is the occupation of property for an extended period of time, as defined by law, which is not legally owned by the person occupying the property. This is sometimes called squatting, or squatter’s rights. Clearly the property is unoccupied, and if a person lives at the property for long enough, 10-12 years in many states, they can come to own the property, even if they legally have no claim to it. Adverse possession can thus be said to be a means of acquiring land or homes, without ever having to pay for it.
It can’t be said that squatting is legal. In fact, the time of occupation prior to gaining the title of the property is specifically illegal. If the person actually owning the property chooses, he can have people who are squatting removed from the property and charged with trespassing. You really can’t just walk onto someone else’s property and claim it for your own without expecting legal repercussions. Further, in many cases, if you leave the property, you lose any time you have accrued through squatter's rights.
Adverse possession, in order to be considered so, must fit three categories of definition. The person must physically possess the property in a visible and real manner. The person also mentally possesses the property, sometimes called hostile possession. This means the squatter or possessor restricts the use of the property by others. Lastly, the person’s possession of the property must be continuous. As stated above, you can’t leave the property for any period of time.
Most cases of adverse possession are fairly innocent ones, that don’t involve people squatting on land. A poorly drawn map of a person’s property that is incorrect can mean people feel they have a right to possess more land than they actually own. The wrong owner could fence off a small strip of land. If this goes unnoticed by the real owner of the land, and the possession is physical, hostile and continuous, then over time the person without the right to the specific property might own it through squatter's rights.
If the real owner of the property realizes the mistake, he or she can go to court to gain full possession of owned property. Sometimes simply pointing out to the neighbor that the property they fenced is adversely possessed ends adverse possession. Often these issues over small patches of land are resolved when correct drawings of property lines are made, without any need for court resolutions. Alternately, if the real owner of the property really does not care about a tiny amount of land he or she may ignore squatter's rights, and allow the neighbor to gradually annex it through continuous occupation.
Homesteading laws, and mining rights were a way of acquiring property quite similar to that used in adverse possession. Over time, people could gain title to lands they built on, farmed, or mined, provided they stayed there for long enough. This is the one case where a fairly innocent type of squatting gives you title to land owned by the government. In most other cases, you can’t adversely possess government land. Each state has its restrictions in regard to government owned property.
Other cases of adverse possessions, where trespass is willful and clearly understood are less common. These may result when people abandon property. A person can move into an abandoned home and adversely possess it. They may even pay the taxes on the home to prove actual occupation of the property. In divorce settlements, squatter's rights can play a factor in determining who acquires title to different types of owned property. If a person ignores the property laws regarding who owns what, they can gradually regain title to property they’ve had to split, by still possessing it.