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A Guide for Landlords on Unlawful Detainers


Jun 10, 2020 by Tara Mastroeni

If you're dealing with a tenant who won't leave your rental unit after being served the proper notices, you may have a case to pursue unlawful detainer action. With that in mind, we've created a guide on unlawful detainers to help you learn more about what this term means and what steps you need to take to achieve eviction.

What is unlawful detainer action?

In the simplest terms, an unlawful detainer action is a particular type of court proceeding. Unlawful detainer proceedings occur when one party is trying to evict another from the place where they live or work. Typically, these detainers take place when a landlord is trying to remove a tenant from a rental property, though they are usually called eviction cases.

However, an unlawful detainer lawsuit can also be filed for reasons other than when the end of a lease agreement goes wrong. An employer can use unlawful detainer proceedings to get rid of an employee, and a licensor can use it to evict a licensee.

Common reasons for an unlawful detainer

If someone is refusing to leave the premises after the end of their right to stay or work there has ended, it's possible to start an unlawful detainer proceeding. Here are some common reasons they commonly take place:

  1. The defendant refuses to pay rent.
  2. The defendant doesn't move out after the lease ends.
  3. The defendant doesn't move out after they break the lease agreement.
  4. The defendant doesn't leave after they agree to vacate the premises.

How does an unlawful detainer case work?

Before getting into more specifics about how unlawful detainers work, it's important to note that each state has its own specific set of laws that govern these proceedings. Your best bet is to get legal advice from an attorney who is licensed in your state about the particular legal process you should follow.

However, in most cases, this type of lawsuit tends to follow the same general pattern. We've laid it out below to give you a better idea of what to expect.

The defendant doesn't leave

In order for an unlawful detainer complaint to have merit, the plaintiff needs to follow all appropriate guidelines when asking the defendant to leave. In the case of a landlord, this means sending proper notice when appropriate.

The plaintiff files a complaint with the court

Once the defendant has officially overstayed their welcome on the property, you can go to the court and file an unlawful detainer complaint. To do this, you must fill out some paperwork with the county clerk and you may be asked to pay a fee.

The defendant is served

After your complaint has been filed, the defendant will officially be served notice of the lawsuit.

The defendant response

Typically, after the defendant has been served, they're given a few days to respond. In most cases, the defendant will respond in one of three ways. Either they will decide to move out, they will contest the complaint, or they will simply not respond.

In the event that the defendant decides to move out, all proceedings will be stopped. However, If the defendant contests the eviction, then the plaintiff will be given notice and a trial date will be set. In the event the defendant chooses not to respond, the court will automatically rule in favor of a plaintiff.

A trial takes place

In cases where a trial takes place, some states require that both parties be present at the trial court. In that case, the judge will hear both sides of the story and make a judgment on the matter.

If the plaintiff can show that the defendant breached an agreement and they were served the proper notices, the court will likely rule in favor of the plaintiff. If the plaintiff cannot provide this evidence, then the defendant has a strong case.

The bottom line

In the end, an unlawful detainer is more or less the same as an eviction, except it can involve relationships other than that of a landlord and tenant. If you're facing the prospect of having to deal with unlawful detainer proceedings, your best bet is to go to an attorney to make sure you have a clear understanding of the eviction process in your state and that you receive legal advice on how to proceed.

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