Alabama has laws in place that protect both landlords and tenants. If you are a landlord and your tenant failed to uphold the terms of a lease or doesn’t pay rent, you can start the eviction process. Depending on the circumstances, the process could vary, but in most cases, you have the right to sue for unpaid rent if you are unable to collect it from the tenant.
The Eviction Process in Alabama
Generally, landlords must have legal cause to evict a tenant. Not liking them or deciding that you want to use the property for something else won’t suffice. Some acceptable reasons include lying on a rental application, violation of lease terms, and failure to pay rent.
To terminate a lease, the landlord generally needs to give a seven-day written notice to the tenant. Tenants then have that period to pay any past due rent, take care of other violations, or vacate the property. But when a tenant still owes the landlord money, what’s the next step?
Tenants with Leases and Unpaid Rent
A tenant “breaks a lease” when they move out before the lease term is up, whether or not they’ve notified the landlord of their intent to vacate. It makes sense to sue a tenant in this situation, particularly when there is a lot of time left on the lease.
By leaving before a fixed-term lease has expired, that tenant is liable for rent for the remainder of the lease term. While the landlord has a duty to attempt to find a new tenant, they may still be able to collect the difference between the rent due, less the security deposit held, the cost to re-rent the unit, and the new rent collected.
When the landlord has evicted a tenant that has a lease, this changes the equation. That same landlord can no longer sue for the remaining amount of the lease because they’ve chosen to terminate the agreement. Instead, they can sue for unpaid rent and any damage the tenant may have caused in small claims court. It might make sense to go down this road if the security deposit won’t cover what is due (factoring in cleaning fees and other expenses).
Month-to-Month Tenants and Unpaid Rent
The situation is similar with a month-to-month tenant. Ideally, these tenants provide the required notice (usually 30 days) of intent to vacate the property and pay rent for that period. If they don’t pay rent or if a month-to-month tenant is evicted, there are several options.
The first is to use the security deposit to cover unpaid rent. Security deposits can be used to cover damage to the property as well as any unpaid rent. But, if a significant amount of damage was done or the rent due is more than the balance held, you can sue for the difference.
Landlords Suing Co-Tenants for Unpaid Rent
When you have two or more people renting a property together with both being listed on the lease, these are co-tenants. Each co-tenant has the same responsibilities and rights under the lease agreement.
If you must evict co-tenants that have back rent due, you can sue either one or both of them for what you are owed. This is because all tenants are financially responsible for money due regardless of any agreements amongst themselves. How they hold each other responsible later is between them.
Potential Tenant Defenses for Unpaid Rent
Often, a tenant that has been evicted and then sued for unpaid rent won’t bother to show up in court. If this happens, you’ll be able to state your case and potentially win by default as long as the scenario is credible.
Sometimes, the tenant will make an appearance but has no valid defense for not paying the past due rent. Maybe they are hoping for leniency by the other parties or would like an installment plan. The courts will generally rule in favor of the landlord in these cases as well.
There are some cases in which the tenant comes to a court hearing with defenses prepared. The most common among these is that the unit was uninhabitable according to state standards. Alabama law requires that a landlord make the premises “fit and habitable,” and failure to do this is potential grounds to break a lease.
For success in defending against unpaid rent, tenants must present proof of their claims, such as an environment that threatened their health and safety. Likewise, landlords should come prepared to these hearings with documentation that includes signed rental agreements and the period of unpaid rent that is due.
Speak with a Qualified Alabama Real Estate Attorney
Landlord-tenant disputes can be emotional and complex. If your evicted tenant still owes you money, you have legal remedies, but getting them to pay can be challenging.
The experienced real estate attorneys at Davis, Bingham, Hudson & Buckner, P.C. have successfully resolved these types of issues for clients throughout the Auburn and surrounding area. We are an established real estate and transactional law firm that has been delivering results for clients since 1978.
Contact our office today at (334) 821-1908 for a consultation to discuss your case.