Sue Your Roommate for Unpaid Rent

Learn the basics of suing your roommate in small claims court for unpaid rent

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.

You Will Need Proof of Shared Responsibility for Rent

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:

  • Lease. If you and your roommate both signed a lease with the landlord, you are considered cotenants. Most of the time, the lease specifies that cotenants are “jointly and severally liable” for paying rent—meaning that the landlord can seek the full amount of rent from any cotenant, no matter what payment arrangement the cotenants made. Although a signed lease demonstrates your cotenant’s responsibility for paying rent, you will likely need additional evidence—such as a roommate agreement—to demonstrate any arrangement to share rent in an unequal manner.
  • Rental agreement. A rental agreement is similar to a lease, except that it establishes a shorter-term (usually month-to-month) tenancy. Cotenants under a rental agreement are most likely jointly and severally liable for rent. Just like a lease, although a cotenant is responsible for paying rent under a rental agreement, you’ll likely need something else to show any agreements to share rent unequally.
  • Sublease or assignment. If your roommate was living in the rental under a sublease or assignment, it’s possible that you won’t have a copy. You can request a copy from your landlord. A sublease or assignment agreement will likely state the exact amount of rent your roommate was responsible for.
  • Roommate agreement. If your roommate didn’t sign the lease or rental agreement, hopefully you put any agreement to share rent in writing. Alternatively, even if you are cotenants under a lease or rental agreement, you might have agreed to share rent in another writing, such as a formal contract or an email.

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.

Send Your Roommate a Written Request for the Unpaid Rent

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.

Preparing to Sue

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.

Your Court Date

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:

  • You and your roommate had a rent-sharing agreement. As discussed above, a written agreement is best, but a court will consider oral testimony and other forms of evidence, such as a landlord’s testimony about receiving rent or a friend’s testimony about hearing you discuss a rent agreement with your roommate.
  • Your roommate broke the agreement. You can present a copy of your demand letter to your roommate, as well as email or other correspondence relating to the missing rent.
  • You suffered a financial loss because your roommate broke the agreement. Canceled checks or electronic receipts of the rent you paid on your roommate’s behalf can demonstrate your out-of-pocket losses, as can a written statement or testimony from your landlord.

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.

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