Eviction – Unlawful Detainer

What is an unlawful detainer action?

If you rent or lease a room, an apartment, or a house from another individual, you are what is often known as a tenant.  The one from whom you rent is regularly called your landlord.

Under certain circumstances, a landlord can seek court-ordered support to remove a tenant, such as yourself, from the leased property.  Such an action is what the courts call “unlawful detainer.”  As a tenant, you first enter such a situation after having committed a wrong against the landlord.  This wrong involves the tenant breaking some part of the signed rental or lease agreement.  An example would be not paying your rent as you had previously agreed to do.

The landlord then has the responsibility to bring your wrong to your attention, and it must be done in a particular way.  You will then be given a set amount of time to either correct the wrong (such as pay the owed rent) or leave the property.  If all of these conditions are met and the tenant remains in the property, the landlord can pursue an unlawful detainer action with the court.1

What are the different situations under which unlawful detainer can go into effect for a tenant in Washington?

  1. If the tenant and the landlord previously agreed on a set amount of time or a specific end date for the tenant’s occupying the leased property, the tenant cannot overstay that deadline.  If the tenant does so without permission, the landlord can pursue unlawful detainer.
  2. Other times, the lease agreement does not have a set end date.  In those circumstances, the landlord is only required to give twenty days’ notice that the agreement and applicable occupancy are ending.  After those twenty days have passed, the tenant is expected to leave the property.  If you do not, then the landlord can ask the court for unlawful detainer.
  3. As a tenant, you must pay the agreed upon rent in exchange for use of the property.  If you do not pay and remain in the property, unlawful detainer can come into play.  Previously, the landlord could expect you to leave the property (or pay what is owed) within three days of the rent’s due date.  In most cases now, however, that timeframe has been extended to fourteen days.
  4. If the tenant fails to meet some other aspect or condition of the rental or lease agreement, this can also lead to unlawful detainer.  Often, this situation involves breaking the behavioral rules or expectations of the property or community.  Examples include not observing quiet hours, keeping certain types of prohibited pets, or having extra non-tenant individuals stay in the property with you for an extended period.  The landlord can ask you to change your behavior so that you comply with your lease agreement.  You will be given ten days to adjust the behavior or to leave the property.  If you do neither, unlawful detainer can result.
  5. If the tenant is taking part in any of the following actions on the property, the landlord can ask you to stop or leave with only three days’ notice: conducting business or dealings that are unlawful, allowing the excessive accumulation of waste, or acting in a way that is considered an extreme nuisance.  If the tenant neither stops nor leaves, the landlord can pursue unlawful detainer.
  6. If the occupant is not a true tenant at all but has instead trespassed onto the property, occupied it, and now refuses to leave, the landlord can seek unlawful detainer against them.
  7. The landlord can request unlawful detainer when the tenant has engaged in or allowed gang-related activity on the property.2

How should notice of the wrong be delivered to the tenant?

There are very specific expectations for how landlords should inform their tenants, via written notice, about circumstances that could become unlawful detainer situations.   Any of the following are acceptable ways for the landlord to deliver such notice regarding the tenant’s wrong:

  1. Delivering a copy directly to the tenant, in-person.
  2. If the tenant is not present, a copy can be left with a responsible person at the property who is old enough to successfully pass along the document to the tenant.  For example, giving it to a small child would not be appropriate to satisfy this requirement.  But, giving it to a teenage child might be sufficient.  A second copy of the notice must also be mailed to the tenant.
  3. If neither of the above criteria can be fully met, a copy can be posted in an obvious place at the property, such as on the main entry door.  If anyone is found to be on-site, a copy should also be given to them.  And again, another copy should be mailed to the tenant.3

What happens at the end of the allotted notice period if the tenant remains in the property?

Once the landlord has given the tenant notice of the wrong, the appropriate length of time has passed, and the tenant has not left the property, the landlord will proceed by providing the tenant with two court documents.  These two documents include a “summons,” which informs the tenant of the pending action in court and the tenant’s need to respond, and a “complaint,” which outlines the specific issue that the landlord is seeking to have resolved by the court.  Both of these documents function slightly differently in the context of evictions than they do in other court actions.4

The summons document must contain all of the following: the names of those involved (landlord and tenant), the court that is overseeing the matter, the landlord’s desired resolution, and the specific date by which the tenant must respond.  That date can be anywhere from seven to thirty days after the document’s delivery to the tenant, so be sure to pay close attention.  The document must also make clear to the tenant that without action or a response, the landlord’s requested outcome will automatically occur.5

The complaint document must explain the issue that the landlord is seeking to resolve.  It must contain a detailed account of the overall situation, including the amount of rent still owed, if applicable.

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