Yikes! My Tenant Just Went to Jail: Here’s How I Handled It

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Have you ever had one of your tenants go to jail? Not just overnight or for a day or two. I mean go to jail — for a while. I have, and it presents some interesting scenarios. What should you as a landlord do? What are you legally obligated to do? Does the tenant still hold possession of the property? How do you regain possession and re-rent your unit? What should you do with the tenant’s stuff?

The answers to the above questions are: it depends. Most of all, it depends on whether or not your jailed tenant will still be able to pay the rent. Most likely, the tenant will lose their job and thus their source of income. This situation will in most cases, unless they have significant resources, make it difficult if not impossible for your tenant to pay their rent.

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What’s a Landlord to Do?

The answer to the above questions also depends on your state and local laws. Some states may address this situation specifically, while others will not. Some states give landlords wide discretion, while others will dictate a specific process.

So what should a landlord in this situation do? Let’s assume that you know your tenant has been jailed and that they have missed paying their rent. What then is the fastest way to get your property back on the rent roll? How do you as a landlord regain legal possession?

first-eviction

Related: The Landlord’s Guide to (Legally) Handling Tenant Abandonment

Eviction

You could, of course, move to evict. An eviction would return possession back to you. And actually, depending on your state and local laws, that may be what you have to do. But evictions are costly. They take time and are generally a pain in the butt to deal with. Plus, the jail and sheriff may not be especially helpful in getting your tenant served and to their court dates in a timely manner. And time is a killer in these situations.

Abandonment

There may therefore be another method that you may want to consider. This method could be faster. It could be easier. It could also be cheaper. Plus, it could actually recoup you a bit of money for your time and expenses. What is this other method? It is to follow the legal procedure for abandonment.

Here in Tennessee — and I bet in most other states as well — there are provisions in the state statutes outlining what landlords can do if one of their tenants abandons their property. Abandonment usually applies to a tenant moving out in secret in the middle of the night. But it can also apply to this situation as well. Tennessee, for example, defines abandonment in part as the non-payment of rent along with “reasonable factual circumstances” that indicate the tenant will not be back. So if you know your tenant is going to be in jail for a while, that is a pretty “reasonable factual circumstance.”

Using the abandonment clauses rather than going through an eviction, at least in my experience, is a bit easier to process. Using the abandonment clauses does not require the hiring of an attorney, the filing of court documents and writs, hiring process servers, etc. All you have to do is send a written notice to the tenant’s last known address, which is your property. Yes, there are waiting periods, but it is going to take just as much time to get a court date and writ of possession anyway.

tax-lien

Related: 10 Invaluable Lessons I Learned From My Very First Tenant Eviction

Regaining the Property

After the required waiting period, you can then go in and repossess the property. You can also remove all of their belongings, but you have to store them for 30 days.  I know that part may sound like a hassle, and in fact it is, but I generally have some place (in an attic or basement) to store the stuff they leave behind. Once those 30 days have passed, you are allowed to sell the stuff to recoup any expense you may have incurred. You generally cannot do this with an eviction, as everything has to be taken to the curb where it will be immediately picked over by vultures who will leave an even bigger mess behind. Instead by using the abandonment procedure, you can just have a yard or estate-type sale or put the stuff on Craigslist and hopefully get a bit of money for your trouble.

The abandonment clause also has another potential good feature. It allows you to be the “good guy landlord” if you want to be. You may have known your tenant well and realize they made a stupid mistake or otherwise got caught up in the wheels of justice. You could choose not to add to their mounting problems by piling an eviction onto their record or putting all of their stuff out on the street. Obviously, this will depend on your particular circumstances.

So if you find out a tenant has gone to jail for a while, don’t rush to evict if you do not have to. The procedure for abandonment may be less costly, faster, and all around less messy to use.

Landlords: Have you ever had a tenant go to jail? How did you handle it?

Let me know your experiences with a comment!

About Author

Kevin Perk

Kevin Perk is co-founder of Kevron Properties, LLC with his wife Terron and has been involved in real estate investing for 10 years. Kevin invests in and manages rental properties in Memphis, TN and is a past president and vice-president of the local REIA group, the Memphis Investors Group.

17 Comments

  1. Alex Craig

    One of my first rentals, the tenant went to jail and actually arranged paying rent until he got out. Then a few months later he went back and was going to be gone a very long time. We had to evict as other people (not on the lease) were living there. Seems easy to kick out people not on a lease, living in a house, but as you and I known well, it is not and eviction process is necessary.

    • Kevin Perk

      Alex,

      You were right to do an eviction as the property was not abandoned. Sounds like you learned a few lessons from that one.

      Interesting that your tenant kept paying rent. That would create some unique problems because the property is not being lived in and thus maintained properly.

      Thanks as always for reading and commenting,

      Kevin

    • Kevin Perk

      John,

      Good to know for our friends in South Carolina.

      It is interesting how the rules can be so different from place to place. Here in Memphis for example, the rules are different in the next county over and very different just across the Mississippi River.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment,

      Kevin

  2. Once. -Tenant’s mom called, said tenant was in mental institution. But tenant in other half of duplex saw cops haul her off, and we found online that she was scheduled for an extended visit at the “mental institution”. I told her mom that I would excuse her of back rent, if she’d quickly get her stuff out. She removed the furniture (but not quickly), and left me the broken junk. (Tenant’s mentality- I know I owe you a little, so I’ll leave you this washer. I’m sure it can be fixed.) I liked her, but I was glad she left, because from the amount of food all over, there would have been an eminent roach problem. Plus, was behind on rent.

    I’ll look into our abandonment laws, but eviction in Ga. is pretty simple, and fairly cheap if you don’t try to get back rent. About this storing their stuff in your attic for 30 days – surely, you’re not talking an entire houseful of furniture? Why not just leave it locked in the house for 30 days? I tell my tenants they must have renter’s insurance to cover theft. My tenants don’t have anything worth moving and selling except TVs.

    • Kevin Perk

      Pam,

      Interesting story.

      You could leave the stuff in the unit but I would move it out because I want to get the income coming back in. Plus there could be legal issues like Deanna pointed out in her comment.

      And you are right, most of the time there is not much to move or or much value.

      Thanks for reading and commenting,

      Kevin

  3. Michael Dake

    An interesting topic and discussion. Thanks to all who have contributed.

    The uniform tenant-landlord law text, which has been adopted by most states, allows for local variances. In KY, the population of the county in question determines whether the standard law applies to evictions or not. Counties with smaller populations (and maybe fewer renters?) have different rules.

    It is a great feature of our American system that the laws we live under can be controlled as close to home as possible. It may make inter-state (or even inter-county) ownership more challenging, but that is a price worth paying.

  4. Didn’t know about those variations, and laws. Thanks, all. Homework required when you rent in multiple locations, then. Around here, I know in some areas near UGA campus, you can have no more than 2 unrelated tenants in the same house. In others, it doesn’t matter.

  5. Tom Mole

    That’s a great point, Kevin. I wish I’d thought about abandonment instead of eviction on some SFR’s I was renting in Ohio a few years back. I just figured that I’d have to fly to Youngstown and sit around for months going to court in order to evict or pay more than the house was worth to hire an attorney to this for me.

    I’m keeping this in mind for the next time. Thanks for the great post.

  6. MB Flagler Property on

    In Florida, the penalty for incorrectly assuming abandonment is the resident’s actual damages with the minimum damages being an amount equal to three months’ rent. An additional three-month rent penalty applies if the landlord prematurely disposes of the resident’s personal property, even if the personal property involved is apparently of little value. In addition to his actual or the statutory minimum damages, which ever is greater, the resident is entitled to his court costs and attorney’s fees. Finally, the landlord may face a claim for civil theft and possibly criminal charges. The downside is so overwhelming that avoiding the cost of a mistake is well worth the writ of possession, if the landlord is ever in doubt about whether abandonment of the rental unit has occurred.

    • Kevin Perk

      Mr. Flagler,

      Good info for all of our friends in Florida to know. If you use the abandonment clause, be sure you are correct.

      Plus, this is another great example of just how different laws can be from state to state. Know your local laws people!

      Also, Flagler is a great name for a real estate company. Lots of history there. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment,

      Kevin

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