If a current or former tenant owes you money, suing him in small claims court can help secure the payments. This might cover past-due rent, or broken items where there's a dispute over who's responsible for making the necessary repairs. Taking a tenant to small claims court involves filling out the relevant paperwork in your state and following the other required steps. You'll also need to check your math -- if you're asking for more than $5,000, small claims court won't be the venue that handles your claim in most states.
Check the Contract
Before filing your claim, consider whether your case is strong enough to be convincing to a judge -- or a jury in states that allow one. This often depends on whether documentation of the money owed exists. For example, many disputes for unpaid rent happen when tenants don't give the required notice before moving out, or otherwise fail to adhere to terms documented in the lease. Being able to highlight a signed contract that obligates the tenant to pay for a needed repair, for example, can be a powerful point in your favor.
Before filing in small claims court, you'll also need to check that the case falls within the statute of limitations, which varies by state and type of contract.
File the Case
While procedures vary by location, you'll generally have to go to the Small Claims office for the area where you intend to file suit. This has to be either where you live or where your tenant does. As the plaintiff, you'll present a statement of claim, which describes why you believe your tenant owes you money. You may need to include copies of any critical documents, such as the lease agreement. Include your name and address, as well as that of your tenant. You'll have to pay a filing fee as well.
Once the complaint has been filed, your tenant will be served with the papers notifying him of the complaint. While you're responsible for detailing where the defendant lives when you fill out the complaint form, in most cases you can't physically serve the papers yourself. Instead, your options include:
- Personal service: Options here depend on state law. This may be performed by an officer of the court, such as a sheriff, marshal or constable. Many states also allow service by a private process server, and some allow any disinterested adult -- meaning anyone besides the plaintiff -- to perform this act,
- Certified mail: Some states allow papers to be served by certified mail, as long as the defendant has to sign for the letter to confirm receipt.
The defendant may be given a chance to respond before a court date is assigned, or the hearing date may be included as part of the summons.
State Your Case
When your trial date arrives, bring a copy of the contract and any other evidence supporting your position to court. Be aware, however, that states have different rules regarding what can serve as evidence. In New Jersey, for example, a written statement from a witness is not admissible even if it was made under oath -- only actual testimony before the court is permitted. Once both sides have stated their case, the judge or jury will make the final decision.
A small claims court does not collect the money for you, even if you win the case. However, it does make it possible to garnish wages or set up a levy against the tenant's bank account if he doesn't pay up.