Landlords have the right to terminate a tenancy—and ultimately file an eviction lawsuit if necessary—when tenants miss a rent payment. So, when a roommate fails to pay the share of rent agreed upon, you might have to pay the full amount out of your own pocket in an effort to keep your rental. Your delinquent roommate isn’t off the hook, though. Depending on the circumstances, you might be able to sue to recover the extra rent you paid.
One of the most important pieces of evidence you’ll need in court (if you decide to sue) is proof that your roommate or cotenant was in fact responsible for paying a share of the rent. Usually, you’ll have one of the following:
If you don’t have a written agreement regarding your roommate’s responsibility for rent, it might be difficult to convince a judge to enter an order in your favor. However, if you have other compelling evidence, don’t hesitate to use it: Courts will consider and evaluate evidence such as your testimony, bank statements showing your roommate’s past history of paying rent, or your landlord’s written statement detailing how much rent each of you paid.
Assuming you've already asked your roommate for the back rent (with no results), or tried unsuccessfully to work out a compromise, you should send a written letter (what’s known as a demand letter) requesting the rent money. Your letter should include the exact amount owed, a timeline of when the money was due along with your previous requests for payment, and any other facts you believe are relevant. Also, include a deadline by which your roommate must pay you back in full—and make it clear that if you don’t receive the money by then, you will file a lawsuit.
Even if your roommate is still living in the rental, 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 to use in court, if necessary.
If your roommate doesn’t respond to your demand letter (or gives an unsatisfactory response), you'll need to decide if it’s worthwhile to file a lawsuit.
Most of the time, the best venue for filing a lawsuit against a roommate is your local small claims court. You can sue for the amount you’re owed up to the state limit for small claims court, which usually ranges from $5,000 to $10,000. (If the amount of money your roommate owes you is more than your small claims court’s limit, though, you might want to contact a local landlord-tenant attorney to discuss your options.)
Filing a small claims lawsuit is inexpensive and fairly straightforward. You don’t need a lawyer—in fact, many courts don’t allow them in most cases. A judge (there are no juries) will probably hear your case within a month or so of your filing suit.
If you decide to file a small claims suit, you’ll be given a court date on which the judge will hear your case and likely make a decision. It pays to be organized and prepared.
The key to winning your court case is providing the court with tangible proof that:
Your roommate will have the opportunity to present evidence and respond to your arguments. If your 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. You’ll probably still need to briefly describe the situation and present evidence.
Small claims courts usually decide the case on the spot or issue a decision within a few days. If you don’t agree with the court’s ruling, you might be able to appeal it.
Your state court website is an excellent resource to find the name of the court where you should file suit. Most small claims courts post the forms you’ll need to file (usually called a complaint or claim), filing fees and other costs, and court rules and procedures online.