One of the challenges for estate administrators here in California is dealing with people illegally occupying the decedent’s property. Sometimes, the individuals may be strangers — squatters — who assumed illegal possession of the property after the homeowner died.
But other situations might involve relatives of the decedent who refuse to vacate the premises after the death of the homeowner. Perhaps they lived there during the homeowner’s lifetime and were their caregiver during their final illness. This might give them a sense of entitlement that they can continue to live there indefinitely.
A delicate situation
If the latter situation is occurring and you are the estate administrator, you might find yourself in the untenable position of having to initiate eviction proceedings against one of your own relatives.
But regardless of any familial ties, your first and foremost responsibility must be to administer the estate to the best of your ability. Below are some suggestions for those needing to evict someone from the home due to adverse possession of the property.
Abide by the law
You need to make sure that at all times you follow the letter of the law in your dealings with squatters. Don’t get dragged into screaming confrontations or moved by crocodile tears. You have a responsibility to uphold the decedent’s wishes regarding the administration of their estate. That must remain your focus during all interactions.
Are they squatters or trespassers?
In situations where those occupying the property gained access illegally, e.g., by breaking a window or door lock, they are considered trespassers and can be arrested. Your first order of business should be to call the police to have them removed and arrested.
What does the law say about squatters?
Here in California, squatters must first be served with a three-day notice to vacate the premises. You cannot file for an unlawful detainer unless this has been done.
To get rid of squatters who refuse to leave after those three days, you must then file an unlawful detainer petition with the local court and pay the fee to get them served with a copy of it.
The squatter then must respond with their answer to your petition in which they defend their position as lawful occupants of the property.
What if they do nothing?
That’s the best-case scenario, because you will then get a default judgment stating that as administrator of the decedent’s estate, you shall regain possession of the property.
Should the squatter answer your petition and show up for the hearing, they will have an opportunity to present their side of the case before the judge. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge will render a decision based on the evidence presented to the court.
I won my case. Now what?
The local sheriff’s office in the jurisdiction of the property in question will need to be provided with a copy of the judgment. There is a fee for them to go past a five-day vacancy notice. Should the squatters ignore that notice, sheriff’s deputies will remove them using force and you can then change the locks.
It’s often helpful to consult a California estate administration attorney to help you with the process of evicting squatters from property owned by the estate for which you are the administrator.