Start by sending a demand letter to get your property back.Start Letter
Unfortunately, we often see small claims cases where a trusted individual takes property from another person. If you are currently dealing with an ex or roommate who took your personal belongings and refuses to return them, there are ways to get your personal property back.
In this article, we explore the following options to get your property back:
Make a list of the items that were taken.
File a police report + determine when someone committed theft.
Request a civil standby.
Send a demand letter.
File an insurance claim.
Sue in small claims court (we have included examples of filed small claims lawsuits).
Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter? Check out our demand letter tool.
Make a List of Items Taken
The most important step you can take when someone steals your personal belongings is to save all possible evidence of the incident. This evidence will be useful in the event you wish to file a police report, file an insurance claim, or sue in small claims court.
It is recommended you make a list of the items that were taken and add as many specific details about the property to the list.
Here is a sample list of stolen property and the cost to replace the property:
Description of Property
Cost to Replace Property
New 2023 Silver MacBook Air 13” Laptop
Source: eBay for a used 2023 13” Macbook Air
New 2023 Black Samsung TV 55”
Source: eBay for a used 55” 2022 Samsung TV
Also, consider gathering receipts and bank statements that will help you prove that the items are yours in the event the person that took your belongings states the items aren’t yours.
If Someone Refuses to Return Your Property, is it Theft?
Generally, theft requires taking property that rightfully belongs to another person with the intent to deny them of that property permanently.
Here are some factors to consider when accusing someone of theft:
When accusing someone of theft, make sure you are able to show you lent someone property and clearly stated that you wanted the property back but they refuse to return it to you.
Theft can also occur if someone took your property fraudulently by making promises they never intended to honor. For example, your boyfriend asks to borrow your car for the weekend and tells you he will return the car by Monday. However, your boyfriend never intended to return your car and takes it permanently. This is theft because of your boyfriend’s intent, fraudulent behavior, and because he took your personal property.
If you find think the person that took your property committed theft, file a police report. The police may be able to investigate and help you recover your property.
File a Police Report
Once you have determined your property has been stolen, you should consider filing a police report. This can be an important step if you later need to file an insurance claim or file a small claims lawsuit against the person who took your property as it helps you build your evidence.
Generally, you will need to file the police report with the police department nearest to where the property was stolen. You will want to:
call the non-emergency line,
confirm their process for reporting stolen property (when will the police send an officer to the location, will they write up a police report, and how can you gain access to the police report), and
confirm that they have jurisdiction over the address where your property was stolen.
Request a Civil Standby
Unfortunately, police oftentimes will not take criminal action against the person who took your belongings (as they will not always consider that your property was stolen or they don’t have enough resources for these types of crimes).
If the police believe your situation is a civil matter (or they chose to call it a civil matter), you can request a civil standby:
A civil standby usually consists of a sheriff or police officer accompanying you to reclaim your property.
The role of the police in these situations is to “keep the peace” while you try to retrieve your personal property.
A civil standby may be helpful if you anticipate the encounter will be violent or dangerous.
Keep in mind that not all police departments have civil standbys as an option.
Ask for Your Property Back by Sending a Demand Letter
Before filing a small claims lawsuit for your property back, you can ask for your property back in the form of a demand letter. For example, if you lent your friend your car and they have refused or failed to return it, you can write a demand letter requesting that your friend either return your car or compensate you for the value of your car.
Here are two reasons why you should send a demand letter:
When you send a demand letter, you are taken more seriously by the other party.
You will also be able to include a copy of your demand letter as part of your evidence to show the judge that you gave the other party an opportunity to return your property before escalating the issue to small claims court.
We have a free tool powered by AI that can help you write a demand letter (check it out).
File an Insurance Claim for Your Stolen Stuff
If you have an insurance policy that covers theft, you may be able to file an insurance claim if someone has your stuff and won’t give it back. Some renter’s insurance cover losses due to theft, including property taken by a roommate who moved out and took your belongings with them.
Here are some items to consider before filing an insurance claim:
Some insurance policies require you to file a police report in order for insurance to cover the stolen items.
You may need a copy of the police report and a description of the items taken. This is why saving all your evidence is important and why you may want to go to the police before taking other further action.
Sue in Small Claims Court to Get Your Property Back
Consider filing a small claims lawsuit to get your property back. Small claims court is a type of court that handles disputes involving relatively small amounts of money. The proceedings are typically faster and less formal than those in other courts and are often designed for people to represent themselves without the need for an attorney.
Common Small Claims Lawsuits Involving Personal Property
Most people don’t know that you can file a lawsuit in small claims lawsuit to get your property back. However, these types of lawsuits are commonly filed in small claims courts.
Here are some examples of filed lawsuits involving personal property:
In Fresno, someone filed a small claims lawsuit against their ex-partner for not returning their dog.
The person who filed the lawsuit had reported their missing dog to the police. Later, they discovered that someone had found the dog and had returned it to their ex-partner. The ex-partner had kept the dog without telling the true owner (the person who filed the lawsuit).
The judge in the case ruled that the ex-partner had to return the dog to the person who filed the lawsuit, which was the other ex-partner. If the dog was not returned by the time of the next hearing, the ex-partner would have to pay the value of the dog, which was set by the judge at $5,000.
It's important to note that in small claims courts, including those in California, you can typically only sue for the value of your property. However, in some cases, a judge may order someone to return the property instead via a “conditional judgment”.
A small claims lawsuit was filed against an auto shop in Los Angeles because they did not return a customer’s car.
The customer sued for $10,000, claiming the auto body shop damaged their car while it was in the auto shop’s possession, and for refusing to return the car.
The judge awarded the individual who sued $300. It’s unclear from the decision why the judge awarded that amount.
In Stanislaus County, a small claims lawsuit was filed against a roommate for taking household appliances, clothes, and other personal belongings and moving out.
The person sued for a total of $3,000.
The judge awarded $3,000 to the person who filed the lawsuit.
How Can Small Claims Court Help You Get Your Property Back
Here are the main ways a small claims court can help you get your property back:
Sue for conversion and get the value of your property back.
Ask the court to issue a replevin order to get your property back.
What is conversion?
Conversion is a fancy way of saying someone took your property and neglected to return it. Conversion can also occur when someone uses, sells, or destroys the property without your permission.
Note, some small claims courts only award money damages for conversion actions. For example, if you sue to get your property back in a New York small claims court and win, the court will award you the value of your property and not your actual property (unless your case falls under an exception).
What is replevin?
Some small claims courts also allow people to file a writ of replevin, which is a court order requiring the return of your personal property by the person wrongfully keeping it.
Generally, to obtain a replevin order, you will need to provide evidence that you are the rightful owner of the property and that the other person has no legal right to possess it. If you are able to prove this, the judge will grant the order, and with that order, you can retrieve the property.
The procedural steps for filing a replevin action will vary based on the value of the property and the court you choose to file in.
How Much Can You Sue for in Small Claims Court?
Each state has a different small claims limit that lets you know how much you can sue for. This limit can vary between $2,500 - $25,000 (review our 50-state guide to small claims limits).
In general, if the person who took your property owes you more than the amount you can sue for, you can still sue for the maximum amount allowed, but you will need to waive any additional amount over the limit.
How Long Do You Have to Sue Someone that Took Your Personal Property?
Statute of limitations are deadlines that let you know by when you should file a small claims lawsuit in small claims court. The statute of limitations is the same for a small claims lawsuit as for other types of lawsuits. The statute of limitations for return of property cases (conversion or replevin) is different in each state.
It is recommended that you don’t wait to file your small claims lawsuit to get your property back. The longer you wait to file your case you risk:
missing the statute of limitations,
losing evidence, and
memories crucial to providing your case beginning to fade.
How Do You Calculate How Much to Sue for?
Always keep the small claims limit in mind when calculating how much to sue for in small claims court. You cannot sue for more than the small claims limit, and at the hearing, you will need to explain how you calculated the money you are owed.
Here are some tips to help you calculate how much to sue for:
Use receipts or check your bank statements. For example, you moved in with your roommate, and you purchased a $1,000 television for the living room. You and your roommate agreed the television was yours, but she could borrow it. Now your roommate has moved out and has taken the television with her. You can file a small claims lawsuit for $1,000 if it costs you $1,000 to replace the television with a similar one.
Calculate based on the market value of similar items. For example, your ex-boyfriend took your car. How do you establish how much the car is worth? If you bought the car from a private seller, look for a sale receipt or something equivalent to it that clearly states how much you paid for the car. If you can’t find this information because it has been a while, search up the make and model of your car and see how much it is selling for (maybe consider the year and condition of your car).
How Much Does it Cost to Take Someone Who Stole Personal Property to Small Claims Court?
The amount you will pay to file a small claims lawsuit against someone for stealing your personal property varies from state to state but generally is between $15- $75. If you cannot afford to pay court fees, you can ask the court if they have the ability to waive your court fee.
You may also need to pay to notify the person who took your property that you have filed a lawsuit against them. This is called “serving” and ranges from $0- $125. The rules around serving are very specific in each state, so make sure to review them.
What is a Small Claims Court Hearing Like?
Small claims hearings are meant to be quick and informal. Here is what you can expect when you sue someone in small claims court:
Right before the hearing, the judge will ask you and the person who took your property to show each other the evidence you both have brought to the hearing. Bring your demand letter, receipts, bank statements, and other information about the stolen property.
The Judge will ask you why you are suing the person who took your property in small claims court. The judge will then turn to them and ask them to state their side of the story.
The hearing could last around 15 minutes, but every case is different, and this depends on many factors.
Very rarely will a judge tell you in court their decision immediately after the hearing. Instead, the judge will probably tell you and the person who took your property that the decision will be mailed to you both (which usually takes a few weeks).
How Do You Prepare for the Small Claims Hearing?
Consider the following points when preparing for your small clams hearing:
Research the law. If you are unsure about your case, conduct research about the law. You can also consult an attorney to better assist you if you have any questions about your property rights or if you aren’t sure what to ask for in small claims court.
Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask questions about the case. Be prepared to discuss the stolen property, how the property was stolen, and all other relevant information.
Prepare your evidence. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared toward showing the judge someone stole your property, and that person either has to give you your property back or compensate you.
Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies (one for you, one for the judge, and one for the other side).
Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Claudia holds a J.D. degree and is a certified mediator in New York and Florida. She has participated in dozens of small claims mediations in New York City courts.