If you’re a landlord, then you likely know that it’s against the law for you to turn your tenant out on the street or change the locks when you want to evict him. Instead, you must go to court and ask the judge for an eviction order. Filing an eviction notice is extremely straightforward since all you have to do is fill out a couple of court forms and pay the filing fee. However, it's important to understand that this is among the last steps of the eviction process.
Understanding Eviction Laws
Just because you're a great landlord does not mean you're always going to get great tenants. There'll always be someone who can't – or won't – pay rent, who damages the rental unit or who makes a complete pest of himself. Eviction may seem a bit drastic but it could be your only option if you're losing money.
Eviction laws vary from state and state, and it's important to read up on them before you start the eviction process. Without doubt, you will need a legal reason for the eviction. Legal reasons typically include:
- Failure to pay rent.
- Violating the lease, for example, subletting or keeping unauthorized pets.
- Causing major damage to the property.
- Causing health and safety hazards.
- Drug dealing from the premises or committing other crimes.
"Self-help" evictions are illegal in every state. This means you must not take the eviction into your own hands. You cannot throw the tenant's stuff onto the sidewalk, change the locks, shut off the utilities or harass the tenant to force him to leave. Do this, and you could be the one facing a lawsuit, not the tenant.
Serving a Formal Eviction Notice
Understanding some terminology is key. In just about every state, you start the eviction process by serving an eviction notice on the tenant. This is a warning shot. It gives the tenant an ultimatum – pay up (or fix the lease violation) by a certain deadline, or leave the premises. The deadline is set by state law and could be anywhere from three to 30 days.
You do not file the eviction notice with the court. If the tenant ignores the notice and refuses to move out, then your next step is to file an eviction lawsuit. This involves a different set of paperwork.
Every state has its own package of notices, which have names like "3-Day Notice to Pay or Quit" or "30-day Notice to Vacate." You can download a fill-in-the blanks notice from a legal documents store like U.S. Legal or from your court's website – just make sure you have the correct form for your location. Check your state's rules for serving the notice. Generally, you'll hand it to the tenant in person or tape it to their front door as well as send a copy by certified mail.
Filing for Eviction at Court
If all goes well, the tenant will leave when he gets an eviction notice. If he doesn't, then your next step is to visit the local courthouse and file for eviction. States have different names for this process. California calls it an action in unlawful detainer, for example, whereas Ohio calls it a complaint for eviction. If you ask the court clerk for an eviction pack, she'll know what you're talking about.
Where Do You File an Eviction Notice?
Generally, you will file at the district courthouse for the county where the rental property is located. But if the tenant owes you a lot of rent, and you want a money judgment for the debt, then you may need to file in a superior court. Each state has its own court system and its financial cut off. In Nevada, for example, the Eighth Judicial District Court hears money damages above $10,000. Call the clerk of the district court for guidance if you're unsure.
Only you, the landlord, can file eviction documents with the court. A property manager cannot do this on your behalf. If you cannot attend in person, then you'll need to hire an attorney.
The Eviction Paperwork
Forms vary from court-to-court but a typical eviction packet contains certain documents.
Complaint for Eviction. Sometimes called a Petition, this document opens the lawsuit and contains all the details of your claim. It's usually a couple of pages long in a "fill-in-the-blanks" format. You'll need to write in your name and address, the tenant's name and address, property address, details of the lease, why you are filing for eviction (for instance, the tenant has not paid the rent), how much rent is owed and other details – all self-explanatory stuff.
Summons. The Summons tells the tenant that he is being sued and what he needs to do next. In most jurisdictions, the tenant has a certain number of days – usually around 20 – to file a response with the court. The response essentially is the tenant's defense. It will list the reasons why he does not agree with eviction.
Court Cover Sheet. This is an internal court document, telling the judge what kind of case it is. There won't be much, or anything, to fill out – perhaps just a box to check to signal that the case is an eviction matter.
Remember to sign the forms once you've filled them out.
Prepare Your Exhibits
You will need to attach a copy of the lease or rental agreement to the Complaint, as well as a copy of the eviction notice (i.e., the "Pay or Quit" notice). You'll also need to attach proof of service, such as:
- A photograph of the eviction notice, taped to the front door of the rental property.
- Proof of mailing/delivery from U.S. Postal Service.
- An "Affidavit of Service" confirming where, when, how and to whom you handed over the eviction notice. The court can give you an affidavit form to fill out.
How to File the Papers
Make at least two copies of the complete document pack (some courts may require more copies). Take the whole lot to the court clerk and pay the filing fee. The clerk will tell you how much it is; you can also find information on the "Fees" page of the court's website.
The court will stamp one set of documents as originals and the other sets as copies. The copies will be returned to you either then and there, or by mail a few days later. Some jurisdictions, such as Las Vegas, will send you the official copies by email, a day or two after you've filed them.
Serve the Court Papers
The final step is to have the papers "served" or formally delivered to the tenant. Again, states have specific rules about how you should do this. Many jurisdictions require you to hire a process server or the sheriff to serve the complaint and summons on your behalf. In other states, you can get any responsible adult who is not connected with the case to serve the papers. If you get the service wrong, the lawsuit is invalid and the case will be thrown out of court. Check the service laws for your state.
Whoever serves the documents must complete an affidavit of service and file this with the court. The affidavit, sworn under penalty of perjury, confirms when the notice was served and by what lawful method.
The court will then schedule a hearing date. If all goes well, the court will give an order for eviction. The tenant then has a set amount of time to leave (around two to ten days), after which time, you have the right to ask the sheriff to escort the tenant out of the premises and take his belongings to the curb.
Jayne Thompson earned an LLB in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LLM in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “big law” firms before launching a career as a commercial writer. Her work has appeared on numerous financial blogs including Wealth Soup and Synchrony. Find her at www.whiterosecopywriting.com.