A landlord can't begin an eviction lawsuit without first legally terminating the tenancy. This means giving the tenant written notice, as specified in the state's termination statute. If the tenant doesn't move (or reform—for example, by paying the rent or finding a new home for the dog), you can then file a lawsuit to evict. (Technically, this is called an unlawful detainer, or UD, lawsuit.)
State laws set out detailed requirements to end a tenancy. Different types of termination notices are required for different types of situations, and each state has its own procedures as to how termination notices and eviction papers must be written and delivered ("served").
Although terminology varies somewhat from state to state, there are basically three types of termination notices for tenancies that landlords terminate due to tenant misbehavior:
However, in some states, landlords are not required to give the tenant time in which to pay the overdue rent or fix a lease violation. In these states, landlords may use Unconditional Quit Notices for transgressions that would require Pay or Quit Notices or Cure or Quit Notices in other, more tenant-friendly states. In these states, landlords may extend second chances if they wish, but no law requires them to do so.
Even after receiving notice, some tenants won't leave or fix the lease or rental agreement violation. If you still want the tenant to leave, you must begin an unlawful detainer lawsuit. This involves properly serving the tenant with a summons and complaint for eviction.
Landlords may usually use a 30-Day or 60-Day Notice to Vacate to end a month-to-month tenancy when the tenant has not done anything wrong. Many rent control cities, however, do not allow this; they require the landlord to prove a legally recognized reason for eviction ("just cause") of the tenants.
When the tenant has a fixed-term lease, landlords typically cannot terminate the lease without just cause.
If the tenant decides to mount a defense, it may add weeks—even months—to the eviction process. A tenant can point to mistakes in the notice or the eviction complaint, or improper service (delivery) of either, in an attempt to delay or dismiss the case.
The way that you have conducted business with the tenant may also affect the outcome: If your rental unit is uninhabitable or the tenant thinks you are retaliating for things like repair requests, this may excuse or shift attention away from the tenant's wrongdoing and diminish your chances of victory.
If you win the unlawful detainer lawsuit, you will get a judgment for possession of the property and/or for unpaid rent. But you can't just move the tenant and the tenant's possessions out onto the sidewalk—trying to remove a tenant yourself can cause a lot of trouble. (For more information, see Don't Lock Out or Freeze Out a Tenant—It's Illegal.)
Typically, you must give the court judgment to a local law enforcement officer (sheriff or marshal), along with a fee that is charged to the tenant as part of your costs to bring suit. The sheriff or marshal gives the tenant a notice that the officer will be back within a number of days to physically remove the tenant if the tenant isn't gone by then.
Landlords often chafe at the detailed rules that they must follow. There is a reason, however, why most states insist on strict compliance. First of all, an eviction case is, relatively speaking, a fast legal procedure. (How many other civil cases are over and done with after a few weeks?) The price to pay for this streamlined treatment is unwavering adherence to the rules.
Second, what's at stake here—a tenant's home—is arguably more important than a civil case concerning money or business. Consequently, legislators have been extra careful to see that tenants get adequate notice and an opportunity to respond.
Unless you thoroughly know your legal rights and duties before evicting a tenant, and unless you dot every "i" and cross every "t," you may end up on the losing side. For help preparing and serving termination notices and the eviction summons and complaint for California properties, see The California Landlord's Law Book: Evictions, by Nils Rosenquest and David Brown (Nolo).
If you need help understanding the eviction processes and rules in other states or need state-specific guides on legally evicting a tenant, see our state by state guide on How to Evict a Tenant.
For an overview of terminations and evictions in other states, including relevant state laws on termination for nonpayment of rent and for lease violations, see Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart.