There's no such thing as a perfect roommate. Your roommate may be too noisy, eat all your food, never wash a dish, have too many overnight guests, or simply be unpleasant to live with. Some of the worst roommate disputes concern money--specifically, when a roommate doesn't pay their share of the rent. In this case, filing a small claims court case may be your best option. Here's what you need to know to prepare for and sue your ex-roommate in small claims court for unpaid rent.
We use the term "small claims court" here, but your state may use a diffferent name, such as "Justice of the Peace," "Conciliation," or City."
For purposes of this article, we're assuming that your roommate signed the same rental agreement or lease as you--making them cotenants, with the same legal rights and responsibilities as you. Whether you have agreed to split the rent equally or unequally doesn't matter to the landlord: Each cotenant is independently liable to the landlord for all of the rent. (That's why you'll probably see a clause in your lease or rental agreement saying that the tenants are "jointly and severally" liable for paying rent and complyng with all terms of the agreement.)
So if you're unfortunate to have a roomate who doesn't pay their share of the rent one month, or simply moves out, you must pay the full rent or face termination or eviction, often with very little notice. State rules specify how much time a tenant has to pay rent or move before a landlord can file for eviction (in many states, it's as little as three or five days).
If you can't get your roommate to pay their share of the rent, you''ll need to foot the entire rent yourself, and then sue your contenant in small claims court for the unpaid rent. But to win your case, you will need to prove that you had an agreement as to how much each of you would contribute to the total rent. Ideal evidence would be a written agreement between the two of you, specifying each tenant’s share of the monthly rent. Alternatively, if you paid the entire rent and got reimbursed by your roommate, you might show the judge your bank statements, which show regular deposits from your roommate, reflecting their consistent payment of a specific percentage of the total rent. Or, if the landlord accepted a check from each of you, you could present your cancelled checks (presumably, your roommate paid the balance); better yet, see if your landlord will provide a written statement, detailing how much rent each cotenant consistently paid.
If you and your roommate had only an oral agreement, or the roommate gave you varying amounts of money each month, you’ll have a harder time winning a case in small claims court.
Assuming you've already called or texted your roommate asking them for the back rent (with no results), or tried unsuccessfully to work out a compromise, you should send them a written letter (what’s known as a demand letter) asking for the rent money owed. Do this even if the roommate is still living in the rental (in most cases, the tenant will have moved out). Your letter should spell out exactly you want (the amount of unpaid rent money), your intent to sue in small claims court if necessary, and any relevant facts.
Send the letter certified mail (return receipt requested), or use a delivery service that will give you a receipt. Keep a copy of your demand letter and the delivery receipt. You’ll need them if you end up in court.
If your roommate has not responded to your demand letter (or has given an unsatisfactory response), you'll likely want to file a lawsuit in small claims court.
While filing a small claims court case is pretty straightforward, you' won't want to waste time and money preparing for and filing the official paperwork if you have no chance of collecting. If the judge rules in your favor, you won't automatically receive the unpaid rent. If the non-rent paying roommate (the defendant in this case) doesn't voluntarily pay, you'll have to collect the money judgment (that is, the judge's written decision of what your roommate owes) yourself. You may have several options when it comes to collecting the judgment, such as ganishing the roommate's wages. But collecting a judgment may be difficult if the other tenant has no money, job, or property to use as a collection source. (And it may be impossible to collect if you can't even find the tenant.)
The key to winning your court case is tangible proof that you had an agreement with your roommate to split the rent, that they broke your agreement (oral or written), and, as a result, you have suffered a financial loss. Ideally, you can assemble the following types of evidence:
You can sue for the amount of the rent that the roommate owes you, up to the state limit for small claims court cases, which is usually in the $5,000-10,000 range. Filing a small claims lawsuit is inexpensive, (it's usually less than $50 to file a case), and a fairly straightforward process. You don’t need a lawyer—in fact, they’re not even allowed in some cases. A judge (there are no juries) will probably hear your case within a month or so of you filing suit.
If you roommate doesn’t show up in court, the judge will normally decide in your favor after verifying that you properly served the court papers and that no one requested a postponement. This doesn’t mean you can simply show up in court and expect to win. You’ll still need to briefly describe your case and present evidence.
Regardless of whether or not the defendant shows up, your testimony (and that of any witnesses) will typically take less than 15 minutes, and the judge either announces a decision right in the courtroom or mails it within a few days.
If you don’t agree with the court ruling, you may be able to appeal it.
Check out your state small claims court rules for more details. Your state court website is an excellent resource to find the name of the court where you should file suit, the paperwork (typically called a complaint or claim) involved with suing your roommate, filing fees and other costs, and whether or not attorneys are allowed (in most cases, you won't need one).