The Eviction Process in California

California's eviction procedures are complex, and landlords need to ensure that they follow the exact procedures required by law—or risk having their eviction lawsuit tossed out of court.

By , Attorney

California landlords must follow strict procedures to evict a tenant. The first step—and one that must be done before the landlord can file an eviction ("unlawful detainer") lawsuit—is to terminate the tenancy with a written notice. The type of notice required depends on the reason the landlord is terminating the tenancy. To add to the complexity of the eviction process, California's Tenant Protection Act of 2019 gives tenants who have lived in a rental for at least 12 months additional protections. Here's an overview of the rules and procedures involved in evicting a tenant in California.

When Does the California Tenant Protection Act of 2019 Apply?

The California Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (the "Act") is a statewide rent control and tenant protection law that affects most tenancies in California. The Act is complex, but, generally speaking, it requires landlords to have "just cause"—a reason recognized by the Act—to evict a tenant who has lived in a rental for 12 months or longer. The reason can be because the tenant is "at-fault," meaning the landlord is ending the tenancy because of the tenant's actions (or inaction), or it can be "no-fault," meaning the landlord has a reason independent of the tenant's behavior (such as wanting to personally move into the rental) for ending the tenancy.

The Act applies to tenants who have month-to-month rental agreements as well as those with longer-term leases. However, there are some types of tenancies that are exempt from the Act. For example, a unit that is "separately alienable from title" (meaning a standalone property that can be sold on its own, such as a single-family home) that's owned by an individual is exempt. Going into the Act in detail is beyond the scope of this article, but Nolo's article Statewide Rent Control: California's Tenant Protection Act of 2019 provides a thorough overview of what both tenants and landlords should know about the Act.

Ending a California Tenancy When the Landlord Has Cause

A landlord can terminate a tenancy early and evict the tenant for a variety of reasons, including failure to pay rent, violating the lease or rental agreement, or committing an illegal act. The landlord must terminate the tenancy by giving the tenant a written notice. The reason for the termination will determine the type of notice needed.

  • Notice for nonpayment of rent. If the tenant doesn't pay rent when it is due, the landlord can give the tenant a three-day notice to pay rent or quit (move out). This notice informs the tenant that the tenant has three days to pay rent in full or move out. If the tenant moves out before the three-day deadline, the landlord can apply the security deposit to cover the unpaid rent, and sue the tenant for any amounts owed that exceed the security deposit. If the tenant doesn't pay rent and doesn't move out, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit at the end of the three days. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1161(2) (2022).)
  • Notice for lease violation that can be fixed: If the tenant violates the lease or rental agreement in a way that can be fixed (for example, by having a pet despite a no-pets policy), the landlord can give the tenant a three-day notice to cure (also called a "Three-Day Notice to Perform Covenant or Quit"). This notice informs the tenant that the tenant has three days to correct the violation or move out. If the tenant moves out within the three days, the landlord can't file an eviction suit, but can sue the (former) tenant for any rent owed or damage to the rental in an amount that exceeds the security deposit. If the tenant doesn't correct the violation within three days and doesn't move out, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1161(3) (2022).)
  • Serious, unfixable lease violations: When a tenant commits a serious violation of the lease or does something that can't be corrected, the landlord can give the tenant an unconditional three-day notice to quit. The notice informs the tenant that the tenant must move out of the rental unit within three days of receiving the notice. The tenant isn't allowed any time to fix the violation, and if the tenant doesn't move out within three days, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit. California landlords can use three-day unconditional quit notices only when a tenant has:
    • assigned or sublet the rental unit in violation of the lease or rental agreement
    • caused substantial damage to the property
    • permitted or created a nuisance at the rental unit, or
    • been involved in illegal activity on the rental premises.

(Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1161(4) (2022).) (Landlords can also use a three-day unconditional notice to quit when a tenant subject to the Act ignores a three-day notice to quit or cure a lease violation that can be corrected. More on that below.)

Ending a California Tenancy When the Landlord Doesn't Have Cause

The rules for terminating a lease without cause vary depending on whether the tenancy is month-to-month or a fixed term.

Month-to-Month Tenancy

If a tenant has a month-to-month rental agreement and has lived in the rental unit for less than one year, then a landlord must give the tenant a written 30-day notice to end the tenancy. The landlord doesn't have to give a reason for the termination, but must not be ending the tenancy for a discriminatory reason. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.1 (2022).)

If the tenant has lived in the rental unit for over one year and is month-to-month, then the landlord must give the tenant a written 60-day notice to end the tenancy. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.1 (2022).)

Both notices must inform the tenant that the tenancy will expire at the end of the notice period and the tenant must move out of the rental unit by that time.

Fixed-Term Tenancy

For tenancies that are longer than month-to-month, the landlord can't end the tenancy without cause until the end of the term. The landlord doesn't need to give the tenant notice to move out at the end of the term unless the lease specifically requires it. For example, this means that if the tenant has a year-long tenancy that expires at the end of December and the tenant hasn't requested a lease renewal, the landlord will not need to give the tenant notice to move out by the end of December, unless the terms of the lease specifically require notice.

Ending a Fixed-Term Tenancy When the Tenant Has Lived in the Rental for 12 Months

The exception to the rule that a landlord doesn't have to give a tenant notice when a fixed-term lease is ending is if the tenant has lived in the property for 12 months. In this situation, the landlord can't refuse to renew the lease without just cause.

If the landlord's reason for not renewing the lease is an "at-fault" reason, the landlord must give a:

  • three-day notice to pay rent or quit if the at-fault reason is nonpayment of rent
  • three-day notice to cure or quit if the at-fault reason is a curable breach (such as having an unauthorized roommate), or
  • three-day unconditional notice to quit if the reason is a noncurable, serious breach (such as committing or maintaining a public nuisance).

(Cal. Civ. Pro. Code § 1161; Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.2 (2022).)

When the at-fault reason is a curable breach, if the tenant doesn't cure the violation or move out after receiving the three-day notice to cure or quit, the landlord must provide a three-day unconditional notice to quit before the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.2(c) (2022).)

If the landlord's reason for not renewing the lease is a "no-fault" reason, the landlord must compensate the tenant pursuant to the Act. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.2 (2022).)

Eviction Lawsuit

Once the required notice period has passed and the tenant hasn't complied with the demands made in the notice to quit, the landlord can file an unlawful detainer lawsuit. The case must be filed in the superior court in the county where the rental is located. The landlord will file the following forms:

Landlords should also check with the court clerk to find out if there are additional required local forms.

The filing fee for an unlawful detainer suit is $240-$450, depending on the court. Landlords can file for a fee waiver if they can't afford the filing fee.

After filing the forms, the landlord must have the eviction paperwork served on the tenant. Once the paperwork has been served, an original and copy of a signed Proof of Service form must be filed with the court. The tenant has either five or 15 days to respond, depending on how the landlord served the paperwork.

If the tenant doesn't file a response, the landlord can ask the court for a default judgment (meaning the court will grant the landlord's request without any input from the tenant). If the tenant responds, the landlord can ask the court to assign a trial date.

Tenant Eviction Defenses

There are several possible tenant defenses to evictions in California. A common defense is that the landlord made procedural mistakes in terminating the tenancy, such as improperly serving a notice or not waiting long enough before filing the eviction lawsuit. Another defense the tenant could use is that the landlord failed to maintain the rental unit, or that the landlord discriminated against the tenant in some way.

Removal of the Tenant

The only way a landlord can legally evict a tenant in California is by going through the courts and winning an unlawful detainer lawsuit. Even after winning the eviction lawsuit, the landlord must use a sheriff to actually perform the eviction. It is illegal for the landlord to personally remove the tenant from the rental unit.

If the tenant has moved out of the rental unit and left behind personal property or belongings, the landlord must first try to notify the tenant of the abandoned property and give the tenant at least 15 days to reclaim it (18 days if the notice was mailed to the tenant). The landlord can charge the tenant for the cost of storage of the property. If the tenant doesn't claim the property, the landlord can dispose of it at the end of the notice period. (Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1980–1991 (2022).)

Resources on Evictions in California

For anyone who wants to represent themselves in an eviction suit, the California Courts Self-Help Guide is an excellent source of information about eviction laws and procedures. Low-income individuals might be able to get reduced-fee or free legal assistance.

The California Landlord's Law Book: Evictions provides step-by-step advice on and the necessary forms for evicting a tenant in California. The California Landlord's Law Book: Rights and Responsibilities is another resource for landlords to tap into—it covers a broad range of issues that will help landlords find good tenants and (hopefully) having to end up in a situation where they have to evict a tenant.

California Tenants' Rights is a book designed to help tenants deal with difficult landlords, understand their rights and responsibilities, and fight an eviction if necessary.

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