Florida “Squatter” Law Undergoes Major Changes

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law on March 27, 2024 amendments to Florida Statutes ch. 82 (Unlawful Detainer), which take effect on July 1, 2024. The amendments signed into law can be found here

Before the amendments were signed into law, a property owner had to file an Unlawful Detainer action in civil court to remove occupants who are not the record title holder and who possess the property by forcible entry or remain in possession against the owner’s permission. 

There were some exceptions to the need to file an action, but what commonly happened throughout Florida is that sheriff offices (and clerks of court staff) would inform property owners who wanted them to remove a “squatter” that the owners must file a civil action to have the occupants removed and would take no action to remove the “squatter”. 

Under the amended statute, this will now change in a major way. Now, a property owner can submit a verified complaint to the sheriff office requesting removal of a “squatter” if certain conditions are met. Below is the list of the conditions that must be met:

  • (a) The requesting person is the property owner or authorized agent of the property owner. 
  • (b) The real property that is being occupied includes a residential dwelling. 
  • (c) An unauthorized person or persons have unlawfully entered and remain or continue to reside on the property owner’s property. 
  • (d) The real property was not open to members of the public at the time the unauthorized person or persons entered. 
  • (e) The property owner has directed the unauthorized person to leave the property. 
  • (f) The unauthorized person or persons are not current or former tenants pursuant to a written or oral rental agreement authorized by the property owner. 
  • (g) The unauthorized person or persons are not immediate family members of the property owner. (note: “immediate family” is note defined by the amended statute, but examples of other Florida statutes define it as a spouse, child, child’s spouse, grandchild, grandchild’s spouse, parent, parent-in-law, or sibling).
  • (h) There is no pending litigation related to the real property between the property owner and any known unauthorized person. 

Upon receiving the verified complaint, the sheriff office must verify that the person submitting the complaint is the record title holder or authorized agent of the owner and appears to be entitled to the relief requested.

If so, the sheriff office must, without delay, deliver notice to the “squatter” to immediately vacate the premises, which can be posted on the premises or hand delivered, and to put the property owner in possession of the property. The property owner must pay the sheriff office the same fee as for execution of a writ of possession. 

More than just removing the “squatter” from the premises, the deputy may arrest the persons who are “squatting” and criminal charges can be brought against them under this amended statute. And the unlawful occupant could face other charges as well, such as vandalism and theft. The amended statute makes criminal the following:

  • A first-degree misdemeanor for making a false statement in writing to obtain real property or for knowingly and willfully presenting a falsified document conveying property rights;
  • A second-degree felony for any person who unlawfully occupies or trespasses in a residential dwelling and who intentionally causes $1,000 or more in damages; and
  • A first-degree felony for knowingly advertising the sale or rent of a residential property without legal authority or ownership.

At the time the deputy turns over possession to the property owner, the property owner can request that the deputy stand by while the owner changes locks and removes personal property of the unlawful occupants from the premises. If so, the property must pay the sheriff office a reasonably hourly fee. The amended statute also provides liability protection for the deputy and property owner for disposal of the occupant’s personal property.

Of course, the property owner faces liability if he wrongfully files a complaint for removal of an occupant, and that action against the property owner shall be advanced on the court’s calendar.  If the occupant prevails, the property owner faces liability of triple the fair market rental value of the property, actual damages, court costs and attorney’s fees. 

The amended statute will provide property owners with much greater ease to remove occupants who are there unlawfully. However, there will still be issues that arise when occupants can show the deputy that they are tenants of the property, especially by oral agreement. 

If an occupant shows the deputy some sort of proof of being a tenant, the deputy may refuse to remove the occupants in that case. If the deputy cannot decide that the occupant is there unlawfully, the deputy may not remove the occupant, and the property owner will have to file an unlawful detainer action to remove the occupants. But under amended 817.03(2) (2024), a person who presents a false lease agreement to any person with intent to possess the property commits a first degree misdemeanor. 

Additionally, this amended statute cannot be used to remove former tenants. This could include situations where the tenant’s tenancy expired or was terminated but the tenant remains or when, presumably, the tenant vacated the premises but then moved back in. If the occupant was a former tenant, the property owner may have to file an unlawful detainer or eviction action to remove the occupant.

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