What is the Difference Between a Tenant, a Co-owner, and a Squatter?

underwood-tenant-coowner-squatter-300x300There are many relationships a person can have with real property. The main relationships where a person has some sort of claim to real property are those of a tenant, a co-owner, and a squatter. 

Each of these terms mean something different under California law. As a result, one’s relationship to the real property will affect one’s rights to that property, and what one can do with that property. 

What is a “Tenant”?

It is likely that everyone, at some point in their life, was or will be a tenant of real property. The California Department of Real Estate defines a tenant as someone who “obtains the right to the exclusive use and possession of the rental unit” from a landlord during a rental period. (California Tenants – A Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights and Responsibilities (2022), RE 26.)  

Oftentimes, the tenant’s specific rights will be determined by the rental agreement with the landlord. Tenants also, however, have basic legal rights within the law, no matter what is in the rental agreement. For instance, there is a limit to how much the landlord can require the tenant to pay on the security deposit. (Civ. Code § 1950.5) Additionally, tenants have protection against retaliatory eviction. (Civ. Code § 1942.5)

Local law may also affect the definition of a tenant. For example, in Danger Panda, LLC v. Launiu, San Francisco passed a rent ordinance providing protections for tenants. (Id., at 506.) This included a provision requiring landlords who wanted to withdraw from the rental market to give monetary relocation assistance to their tenants. (Id., at 507.)

The plaintiff, who intended to withdraw from the rental market, gave a check to each of the defendants as required by the ordinance. (Id., at 510.) The defendants failed to vacate the property, so the plaintiff sued for unlawful detainer. (Id.)

The defendants had a minor son named David. (Id.) In response to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, the defendants argued that the plaintiff did not comply with the ordinance because he should have given another relocation payment to David. (Id.) The defendants contended that David was considered a “tenant” under the ordinance. (Id.)

The trial court concluded that David was a tenant because he had a right to occupy the property, and the plaintiff should have given David a relocation payment. (Id.) The trial court then transferred the case to the Court of Appeal, and the Court of Appeal reversed. (Id., at 506.)

In the rent ordinance, the term “tenant” was defined as someone “entitled by written or oral agreement . . . to occupy a residential dwelling unit to the exclusion of others.” (Id., at 513.) The Court of Appeal held David was not a tenant according to this definition because he was a minor child who had no capacity to contract with the landlord. (Id., at 514.) 

What is a Co-owner?

Someone who owns property with one or more other persons is a co-owner. In California, there are generally four different types of co-ownerships: tenancies in common, joint tenancies, community property, and partnerships. (CAPROP CH 12-A.)

A joint tenancy is when parties have equal shares in the property and must be expressly declared. (Civ. Code § 683.) A key attribute of joint tenancies is the right to survivorship, where the joint interest of a deceased joint tenant will pass on to the surviving joint tenants. (Dieden v. Schmidt (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 645, 650.)  

Community property is all property acquired by a married person during the marriage. (Fam. Code § 760.) Each spouse has equal interests in community property during the marriage. (Fam. Code § 751.) If the spouses want to, they can hold the community property with a right of survivorship. (Fam. Code § 750.)

A partnership interest is an interest owned by people in partnership, for the purpose of a partnership. (Civ. Code § 684.) A partnership is considered an organization of two or more people who act as co-owners in a business for profit. (Corp. Code § 16202.) The actions of one partner bind the whole partnership. (Corp. Code § 16301.)

A tenancy in common is when parties own property interests not in joint tenancy, community property, or partnership. (Civ. Code § 686.) If no ownership type is expressely declared, California law assumes that the parties hold the property as a tenancy in common. (Wilson v. S.L. Rey, Inc. (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 234, 242.) Tenants in common are free to encumber their interests, even without the consent of the other co-owners. (Schoenfeld v. Norberg (1970) 11 Cal.App.3d 755, 765.)  Tenancies in common can also be divided into whatever percentage the co-owners wish, though they do not have a right to survivorship.  

What is a “Squatter”?

A squatter is someone who occupies a property that he or she does not legally own. Under California law, a squatter may actually be able to claim legal ownership of the property under the legal doctrine of adverse possession.

There are several requirements a squatter must meet before claiming property under adverse possession. The squatter must prove possession of the property, actual occupation of the property that the owner knew about, possession that is hostile to the original owner, continuous possession of at least five years, and payment of all the property taxes for those five years. (Hansen v. Sandridge Partners, L.P. (2018) 22 Cal.App.5th 1020, 1032-1033.) 

If a squatter can prove all of the required elements, he or she can gain title to the property through adverse possession. (Civ. Code § 1007.) This is important for property owners because squatters can potentially take possession of property from the original owners. 

An Example

“Shawn” and “Julie” are an unmarried couple who want to live together. They find a nice home in Los Angeles and buy it as joint tenants. Since they are joint tenants, they each have a one-half interest in the property with a right to survivorship. They move into the home and begin their new life together.

Shawn is a property manager who has several properties across California. He rents a condo to some tenants for one year. The tenants enjoy exclusive use and possession of that condo for the one-year period.

Shawn also eyes some new properties to invest in. He decides to buy the property with his colleague, as tenants in common. Shawn owns eighty percent of the property, while his colleague owns twenty percent.

Eventually, Shawn and Julie get married. They decide to buy a nice vacation home. The vacation home is considered community property, in which Shawn and Julie hold equal interests.

Later on, a squatter begins living in one of Shawn’s unoccupied residential properties. Shawn notices and wants to prevent the squatter from asserting an adverse possession claim on his property. Shawn pays the squatter to leave. 

How Underwood Law Firm Can Help You

Tenants, co-owners, and squatters all have different rights and responsibilities regarding real property under California law. It is vital for parties to understand how their relationship to real property affects their obligations concerning their properties. 

Here at Underwood Law Firm, our knowledgeable attorneys are here to help navigate the complex web of case law and statutes surrounding partitions. If you are trying to plan a partition order, or just have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to our office.

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