What are squatters’ rights, and who can claim them?

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In this post, we look at the seemingly outlandish case of Bill Gertos, who claimed squatters’ rights on a property in Ashbury and was ultimately granted possession of it. How did this property developer get away with it, and equally as important, how could this situation have been avoided?

In 1998, Bill Gertos came across the abandoned Inner West property, finding the doors unhinged and the house completely open. The home had in fact been leased by an elderly woman who passed away that same year. Upon his discovery, Gertos decided to take possession of the property, changing the locks and commencing restoration work. 

He had been renting the home out for close to 20 years when the family of the original owner was notified by police of the situation in 2017. The original owner had moved out of the property post-WWII. 

Annoyed at missing out on the property that they were entitled to, the existing beneficiaries challenged Mr Gertos when he applied for ownership rights to the Registrar-General under the existing squatter laws or ‘adverse possession’ laws. 

Adverse possession was developed under common law (court-made law) and allows a person to gain title to a property if they have remained in that same property for a certain amount of time, and nobody has disputed their possession.

Seeing as Mr Gertos had been habituating and renting the property for over 20 years, the Supreme Court awarded him full ownership.

How is it that a squatter can claim ownership rights?

In New South Wales, under the Real Property Act 1900, a person can apply to gain the right to adverse possession of the property if they have remained in that same property for a minimum of 12 years. During that period, they must have maintained factual possession of the land to the exclusion of others, and demonstrate an intention to possess the property. 

Factual possession requires a level of physical control over the property. In Mr Gertos’ case, actions that indicated his physical control would include changing the locks, repairing the property or paying bills. Gertos’ conduct, although perceived as vastly unfair by the public, satisfied the requirements of the Court, and he is now the official owner of the $1.6 million home.

In this case, Supreme Court Justice Rowan Darke found Mr Gertos had sufficient evidence he invested money into fixing the home, paid taxes on it, and leased it to rental tenants.    

How could squatter laws impact you?

If there is a property in your family that has passed through the generations, they may indeed have a very real impact, particularly if there is no official title deed to show that your family members are actually the legal owners. In this case, squatters may very well be able to take legal ownership.

A will is an essential document, particularly in this case, to grant and demonstrate legal entitlement of your beneficiaries to any property you may have in your possession. 

Owen Hodge Lawyers has a team of estate planning professionals who can make sure that this turn of circumstances does not happen to you. Contact us today to organise a consultation on 1800 770 780. 

Head to the Owen Hodge blog if you want to learn more. We explain legal jargon, like conveyancer vs solicitor and barrister vs solicitor, as well as discuss things like, if you resign what are you entitled to and ‘pain and suffering’ compensation payout amounts

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