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Did you pay more than you had to in rent because your roommate failed to pay their share of the rent? You may be able to sue your roommate in small claims court for unpaid rent. Learn how to sue your roommate in small claims court, how much it costs to sue in small claims court, and how to prepare for a small claims hearing in the article below.
Can You Sue Your Roommate for Not Paying Rent?
Yes, you can sue your roommate for not paying rent since you and your roommate agreed to split the rent and they didn’t live up to that promise.
You will need to prove to the judge that you both had a responsibility to pay a share of the rent. This proof doesn’t have to be in the form of a written contract. For example, you and your roommate may have had a verbal agreement that each of you would pay a share of the rent. However, if you do have something in writing, that makes it easier to prove your case to the judge.
Here are some ways you can prove your roommate had a responsibility to pay a share of the rent:
A lease. If you and your roommate both signed a lease with the landlord, you are usually considered cotenants. In this case, your lease will likely specify that the cotenants are "jointly and severally liable" for paying rent. This means your landlord can pursue any unpaid rent from either cotenant, no matter what payment arrangements you and your roommate have made. A signed lease is the most common way to demonstrate cotenants’ responsibilities to pay rent.
A rental agreement or contract. A rental agreement is like a lease but differs in that it is not a long-term contract and usually occurs on a month-to-month basis. It should also include information about rent payments.
A sublease or assignment agreement or contract. If your roommate was living with you in the rented unit under a sublease or assignment, you probably don’t have a copy of the sublease or assignment. Ask your landlord for a copy. This copy of the sublease or assignment agreement will probably state the amount of rent your roommate was responsible for.
A roommate agreement. If your roommate didn't sign a lease or other type of rental agreement, the best case scenario is that you and your roommate put any agreement to share rent in writing. The agreement should illustrate how much each roommate had to pay in rent every month and who is responsible for which utilities.
Find a witness. You can still sue your roommate in small claims court even if you don’t have a written contract. Find alternative ways to prove your roommate owes you unpaid rent. For example, you and your roommate also lived with a third person, and they are willing to testify at your hearing as to how much each of you paid and that you all verbally agreed to this.
Past payments. You can prove that your roommate had a history of paying a portion of the rent in the past by showing bank statements or receipts. For example, if you and your roommate agreed that they would pay ½ of the rent each month, and each month, you received a Zelle to your Wells Fargo account from your roommate for the same amount, you can use this in court as proof they were responsible for that amount.
Your testimony. At the small claims hearing, you have the opportunity to testify about the facts of your case. Your testimony will be extremely important if you don’t have written evidence that proves you had an agreement with your roommate to share rent.
Remember, People Clerk helps you put your evidence together for your small claims hearing.
What To Do Before Suing Your Roommate for Unpaid Rent in Small Claims Court
Reach Out to Your Roommate
Consider communicating with your roommate if a problem arises. Remember, because you guys are roommates, try to preserve the relationship as best as possible since you will probably live with each other for the foreseeable future. If your roommate wasn’t able to pay rent for the last couple of months, ask them if something is wrong. Maybe they are going through some kind of financial hardship, and you guys can come up with a new arrangement for the time being.
When you talk to your roommate, you want to make sure they understand they owe you money for rent and how much they owe you. For the most part, your roommate will let you know why they couldn’t pay that month and agree to pay you all or most of what you are owed. Try to understand their situation if they couldn’t pay because of financial reasons but also be clear you need to be paid because covering rent for that month burdened you financially.
Save All Evidence
It is best to start gathering and saving evidence as soon as your roommate missed paying rent to be able to use it in case you need to take legal action later.
Consider the following list of evidence you may want to gather and save:
A written agreement that proves your roommate had a responsibility to pay a share of the rent. As discussed in the previous section, this could be the lease or a more informal document like a roommate agreement.
In the case where you don’t have any written document that proves your roommate had a responsibility to pay a share of the rent, you will want to show other forms of evidence to the court. For example, evidence of canceled checks or money orders that your roommate gave you as rent payments.
Any correspondence between you and your roommate that discusses rent payments.
Send a Demand Letter
A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, in your demand letter, you can ask your roommate to pay you their share of the rent that they failed to pay last month.
Here are at least three good reasons why you should send a demand letter before suing your roommate for unpaid rent:
Depending on the state you are filing your small claims lawsuit in, you may be required to demand payment before suing your roommate. By sending a demand letter, you will be fulfilling this requirement.
When you send a demand letter, you are likely to be taken more seriously by your roommate. This may lead to your roommate paying you back for the unpaid rent and resolving your dispute out of court, saving you time and money.
What is the Maximum Amount You Can Sue Your Roommate for in Small Claims Court?
You can sue your roommate in small claims court for a variety of reasons, including for not paying rent or utilities. The maximum amount you will be able to sue your roommate for in small claims court is known as the small claims limit. This limit varies by state but can range anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000. You can review the small claims limits for each state in our Guide to Small Claims Limits.
Note, if you are owed more money than the small claims limit, you can still sue in small claims, but you agree to waive any additional amount you are owed. For example, the small claims limit in New York City small claims court is $10,000. That means if your roommate owes you $11,000 in unpaid rent, you agree to sue for $10,000 only and waive the additional $1,000.
How Much Does it Cost to Sue Your Roommate in Small Claims?
For the most part, states have made filing a small claims lawsuit affordable.
Most small claims courts charge between $10-$75 to file a lawsuit.
It is important to be aware that small claims filing fees vary by state and sometimes even by court.
Fees may also vary depending on how much you are suing for.
Some small claims courts offer low-income claimants (the person suing) court fee waivers.
For the most up-to-date fees, check out our Small Claims Guides by State.
Once your lawsuit is filed, you have to notify your roommate that they have been sued. This is called serving. Depending on the methods of serving available to you, the amount you will pay to serve your small claims lawsuit varies.
There are several methods of serving at varying prices. Not all courts accept all methods of serving, so you will have to confirm what options are available to you.
One option may be to have a friend or family member serve your small claims lawsuit. This would cost $0.
The sheriff may be able to serve your lawsuit depending on the county where your roommate is located. This fee varies but is usually $40 - $70.
Another option may be to hire a process server which is someone licensed to serve lawsuits, and they charge anywhere between $50 - $125.
Is There a Deadline by When You Have to Sue My Roommate in Small Claims Court?
Yes, this deadline is called the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations is the same for a small claims lawsuit as for other types of lawsuits. If your roommate didn’t pay rent, you will likely be suing for a “breach of contract,” so this is the statute of limitations you would want to research. Sometimes, there are different statutes of limitations in each state depending on if you had a written contract or a verbal contract.
To avoid having issues relating to the statute of limitations, don’t procrastinate filing your lawsuit. Once you know your roommate isn’t going to pay you back, it is time to consider taking them to small claims court. Another reason you shouldn’t wait to file your lawsuit is that the more time you wait, the higher chance you start losing evidence that can be crucial to proving your case, and as time passes, memory and credibility fade.
How to Sue Your Roommate in Small Claims Court for Unpaid Rent
Here are the general steps to suing your roommate in small claims court for unpaid rent:
Prepare the information you will need to file your lawsuit.
File the lawsuit.
Serve the lawsuit.
We break down each one of these steps below and for state-specific information, check out our Small Claims Guides by State.
Preparing Your Small Claims Lawsuit
You will need to fill out the required forms for your small claims lawsuit. This form usually asks you (1) who you are suing, their name and address, (2) how much you are suing for, and (3) why you are suing them in small claims court.
At this stage, consider how much you are suing your roommate for. Always keep in mind the small claims limit for your local small claims court when you are figuring out how much to sue for. In this case, you should be suing for how much rent your roommate has failed to pay. Remember, you will need to prove this amount to the judge at the small claims hearing.
File Your Small Claims Lawsuit Against Your Roommate
After you have prepared all the required forms, you are ready to submit the small claims lawsuit to the court.
There are several ways you may be able to file a small claims lawsuit. This will vary by state and by court; confirm what methods are available to you by calling your local small claims court or checking out our Small Claims Guides by State.
In person at your local small claims court. You always have the option of going to your local small claims court and filing your small claims lawsuit with the court clerk.
By mail. Most small claims courts allow you to mail your small claims lawsuit to the court. Make sure to include all required documents when filing via mail.
Electronically. Unfortunately, most courts don’t allow you to e-file or electronically file your small claims lawsuit. Go to your local small claims court website to find out if they have adopted e-filing and which system they use. Be prepared to pay an additional transaction fee as well.
Serve Your Roommate With the Lawsuit
Once you file your lawsuit, the next step is to notify your roommate that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" or "serving." You will need to have a current address for your roommate. In many states, your roommate can be served where they live or work.
Who can serve a small claims lawsuit?
NOT YOU! You cannot serve your own small claims lawsuit.
Court Clerk. The court clerk may be able to serve the lawsuit by mail.
Process Server. A process server is someone licensed to serve lawsuits. This is what they do for a living, so they are pretty good at it.
Sheriff. Not all sheriffs serve small claims lawsuits.
Friend or Family member. You can have an adult friend or family member serve your small claims lawsuit. Make sure they are not part of the lawsuit or are involved with what happened with the lawsuit.
People Clerk can help you file and serve a small claims lawsuit against your roommate.
Prepare for Your Small Claims Court Hearing
The most important step to winning your small claims lawsuit is to come prepared for the hearing. You need to make sure you're well organized and have prepared evidence that proves your claims.
Understand your claims. Remember, you are suing for unpaid rent. This means you will need to prove your roommate had a responsibility to pay a share of the rent, your roommate owes you rent payments as per an (oral or written) agreement, and evidence of your out-of-pocket losses. If you are unsure of your claims, conduct your own research or consider consulting with an attorney.
Prepare your evidence. This means your evidence should be organized with titles and dates so you can easily reference which evidence proves which part of your claim. For example, you will need to prove that your roommate was responsible for a share of the rent payments. Organize your evidence so you can easily find where in the lease or rental agreement it says your roommate has to pay rent and how much they have to pay in rent. We at People Clerk have witnessed many hearings where the claimant has a good case but doesn’t have their evidence organized, so they can’t easily show the judge how they are right.
Prepare what you will say at the hearing. You and your roommate will both have the same opportunity to make a statement of your side of the story to the judge. You want to make sure you understand your claims well and can easily explain to the judge why your roommate owes you money.
Bring multiple copies of your evidence. You should bring at least three copies of your evidence. One copy for you, one copy for the judge, and one copy for your roommate.
Alternative to Suing in Small Claims Court: Mediation
Consider going to mediation with your roommate. Mediation is an especially good option for people that have an existing relationship and will continue to have a relationship in the future. If you and your roommate were friends before they decided not to pay their rent, there may be an opportunity for the relationship to be fixed during a session with a mediator.
Mediation is a meeting between you, your roommate, and a neutral third person called a mediator. A mediator is not going to decide who should win but rather help you and your roommate come to a mutually satisfactory agreement and communicate with each other. If you reach an agreement during mediation, you don’t have to go in front of a judge. However, if you don’t reach an agreement, your case can continue to court.
Below are some ways you can mediate your dispute:
Some courts have mediation as part of the small claims process, so mediating your dispute is as easy as letting the court know you want to proceed with mediation.
Alternatively, in most states, there are organizations that provide free or low-cost mediation run by volunteer mediators. Run a google search for "mediation near me," and you will find one of the many organizations providing mediation.
Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila holds a law degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.