No landlord thinks their tenant will end up in prison. And yet.
Rental properties come with plenty of upsides, like consistent passive income and investing in an asset that is likely to appreciate in value over time. But they come with their fair share of risks and downsides too, mostly centered around people. From bad contractors to professional tenants or simply unreliable renters, landlords often get stuck holding the bag when the people around them mess up.
If you think your renter is incarcerated, you’re likely wondering what to do if your tenant goes to jail. Fortunately, there’s a simple procedure you should follow in this surprisingly common event. Follow this step-by-step guide to learn what to do if your tenant goes to jail.
What to Do if Your Tenant Goes to Jail: a Step-by-Step Guide
As a landlord, you can and should avoid jailbound tenants through some simple prevention tactics. A good tenant screening service can do wonders here, as the most accurate predictor for future crimes is (drum roll) a past history of committing crimes. You should also include a lease clause stating that criminal activity or a felony conviction constitute grounds for eviction.
But even the most prepared landlord may still find themselves in this situation. If you do, here are the steps you can take to protect yourself.
Step 1: Confirm Your Tenant Is in Jail
First things first: make sure your tenant is actually incarcerated. You may do this by getting in touch with other tenants or their listed contacts on their lease agreement and then confirm with your local or state database.
From there, communication is key. Your options are limited here, but you should be able to get your desired outcome if you tread carefully.
Step 2: Get in Touch with Your Tenant
Once you know for sure your tenant is actually in prison, you need to reach out to them or another tenant on the lease, if there is one.
You may be able to speak to them through their lawyer or through a third party who is in contact with them. Try to avoid calling their workplace or other contacts. But if you have to, refrain from directly mentioning that you think your tenant is in jail — just say you’re looking to get in touch with them, and see if they’re able to provide you with any information.
Communicating with your tenant will help determine the next steps you need to take. Here’s some questions to ask your tenant:
- Do you know how long you will be in custody?
- Are you able to pay rent while you’re incarcerated?
- Do other tenants on the rental agreement understand that the whole of the rent needs to be paid, even if you are no longer contributing?
- Are there any secondary renters who may want to take over the lease while you’re is in prison?
Step 3: Know Your Options
Once you have a clear understanding of how things look from your tenant’s perspective, you can decide how to proceed. You should know local, state and federal laws that apply here, so be sure to brush up on your knowledge before you make any moves.
Overall, these are some general options:
1: Continue the Lease As-Is
If your tenant wants to retain their lease and can continue making rent payments on time, this makes for the easiest option. It saves you from having to serve an eviction notice, go to court, remove their belongings, go through a turnover, and advertise the vacant unit. This tends to only work if there are multiple tenants, and one or more of them continue living in the property.
2: Ask Tenant to Certify That Property Is Vacated or Abandoned
If your incarcerated tenant does not wish to continue their lease, or there is no other recourse, you can ask them to certify that they have officially vacated the rental.
This allows you to mutually terminate the lease agreement before the term ends. You’ll need to make sure you come up with a set plan for dealing with the tenant’s personal property. They’ll need to sign-off here too, and it’s best practice to have such a document notarized. Ask the tenant for a contact who can remove all their personal belongings from the unit. Make sure the tenant knows you’ll charge them for the cost of removing any abandoned property and for cleaning the unit, if their contact fails to do so properly. And of course be careful to follow all local laws for dealing with abandoned property.
Step 4: Pursue Legal Eviction for Non-Payment if No Other Routes Exist
If you’ve exhausted all other options and can’t come to a satisfactory agreement with your tenant, or if they quit paying rent, you may have to file for eviction. Nonpayment of rent constitutes a legal reason when a landlord can break a lease agreement.
As always, be sure to follow all applicable laws during this process. Know that you’ll probably end up on the hook for the cleanout costs of the unit.
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Special Considerations: When to Contact a Lawyer
What if your tenant goes to jail for domestic violence? Allowing them to remain on the lease may seem dangerous to both you and other tenants.
Here, you can’t evict victims of domestic violence, if they remain in the property after the perpetrator went to prison. But you may be able to split the lease agreement and remove the perpetrator while allowing the other tenants to remain. You’ll want to contact a lawyer to help you in this case.
And what if an evicted tenant sues you, or takes any other kind of legal action against you during this process? Unfortunately, even the most comprehensive landlord insurance plans typically don’t cover legal liability in cases like this, although they will protect your property and possessions should an angry tenant try to seek revenge in the case of an eviction.
Consulting with a lawyer from the minute you learn your tenant is in jail may be your best bet to protect yourself from liability. And consider having one review your lease contract: they can help you write a clause that allows you to evict tenants with felony convictions.
Protect Yourself if Your Tenant Goes to Jail
If you follow the steps above, you should be in good shape in the event your tenant goes to jail. Remember, a tenant background check, a good lawyer, a well-worded lease agreement, and landlord insurance are all tools you can keep in your back pocket.
It’s a cliche for a reason: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.♦
How do you prevent finding yourself with a jailed tenant? What have you done if you have had a renter go to prison?
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About the Author
Chelsi Walker is the Insurance Vertical Manager at Benzinga, a fintech media company providing news and financial know-how to the everyday person. She enjoys writing about personal finance, insurtech, crypto, travel and disinformation trends. She’s passionate about roller skating, Detroit techno, her dog Marlo, and helping people leverage technology to reach financial security.