Eviction Laws and Tenant Rights in Tennessee
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Landlords in Tennessee can’t just change the locks, toss your belongings out on the front yard, or shut down essential utilities. A landlord must follow the eviction process in order to have a tenant evicted for any reason. Here's an overview of what this means for tenants in Tennessee.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated November 17, 2021
It’s stressful to face an eviction. In addition to potentially losing your home, you may feel that you have no rights. Fortunately, the Tennessee housing code gives renters rights and protections when they face eviction cases. This article takes you through Tennessee’s eviction laws and how you can use these laws to assert your rights. If you’re a tenant in Tennessee who is facing the threat of eviction, owes back rent, or whose lease is expiring, this article can help you.
What Is Eviction?
An eviction is a legal process landlords can use to force a tenant or renter out of their property. Before your landlord can evict you, they must give you an eviction notice detailing why they want you to leave. They must also usually give you a certain number of days to resolve the issue. If you haven’t resolved the issue by the time the eviction notice expires, the landlord must file an eviction lawsuit and get a court order to remove you from the property through eviction.
If your landlord removes you without a judgment from the court, they have broken the law and have committed what’s known as an “illegal eviction” or “illegal lockout.”
Tennessee has three kinds of evictions, which we’ll explain in this article.
Who Can Be Evicted in Tennessee?
You can only be evicted if you’re in a landlord-tenant relationship. A tenant is someone renting a property through an agreement with the property’s owner. Anyone living with the tenant, even if they aren’t on the rental agreement, can also be evicted.
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Why Can Someone Be Evicted in Tennessee?
There are three main reasons you can be evicted. The first is for nonpayment of rent. This could be that you didn’t pay the full amount, that you’ve failed to pay any rent for a while, or that you’ve been paying your rent late. You can also be evicted if you’ve violated the rental agreement for a reason besides not paying rent, such as having a pet that’s not allowed. Finally, you can be evicted if your lease has expired and you refuse to leave.
The eviction process is largely the same no matter the reason for the eviction. One thing that does differ is the amount of time your landlord must give you to vacate before they pursue an eviction.
Late, Short, or Behind on Rent?
You can be evicted in Tennessee if you owe any amount of back rent, but the rent must be at least five days late for a landlord to pursue an eviction. Beyond that, the landlord must give a 14-day notice for you to pay the rent or leave.
Lease Expiration or Termination
Tennessee allows for evictions after the lease expires or is terminated. In both situations, the landlord is essentially saying that you have no right to live in the rental property, even if you’re current on rent.
If you’ve signed a yearlong lease, or a lease for any term other than month-to-month, when the lease expires, your landlord can pursue eviction without giving you notice. That is assuming that you haven’t gotten a lease extension or signed a new lease. If you’re on a month-to-month lease, the landlord must give you a 30-day notice. If you fail to move out by that date, then the landlord can immediately pursue an eviction.
Lease termination is different from expiration. Your landlord can terminate your lease if you violate the terms of the lease agreement. The amount of notice they have to give you depends on the type of violation.
For situations concerning drugs, the landlord only needs to provide you with written notice that you need to move out in three days.
If you’ve seriously damaged the rental unit or engaged in violence while on the property, the landlord only needs to provide 14-days notice for you to leave before they start the eviction process.
For all other violations of a lease, the landlord has to give you 30 days to fix the issue before they seek eviction.
The Tennessee Eviction Process
This section breaks down how eviction lawsuits work under Tennessee law to help you understand the complex process.
What does a landlord have to do to begin an eviction?
Before they can file an eviction in court, Tennessee landlords must give tenants a written notice that outlines how much time the tenant has before they must move out and whether they have the right to cure or address the issue.
For drug issues, tenants get a three-day notice. There’s no right to cure.
Tenants get a 14-day notice if they’ve damaged the rental unit or committed violence.
Tenants who are late on rent get a 14-day notice to either pay the rent or face eviction.
For all other lease violations, tenants have a 30-day “right to cure” or address the issue to avoid eviction.
If you’re on a month-to-month lease, and the landlord wants you to leave. They have to provide you with 30 days’ notice.
When a lease expires that has a term other than month-to-month, if you remain in the property after the lease expires, the landlord can pursue an eviction immediately.
What happens once the eviction action is filed with the court?
After the notice runs out, the landlord must go to a general sessions court and have it issue a detainer warrant. This allows them to serve you with a summons that includes the court date. The landlord isn’t supposed to serve this to you personally. They can use a mail service, have someone provide it to you in person, or have someone post it on your property. If the landlord is seeking damages, they must ensure that you receive personal notice.
The detainer warrant must be served at least six days before the eviction hearing. The warrant should have the day and time of the eviction hearing. Either party can request an extension of 15 days. Depending on what county that you live in, you may be required to file an answer ahead of time. Filing an answer will include filling out forms with the court that include what defenses you are putting forward. Defenses are reasons why you shouldn’t be evicted. You can also raise counterclaims, which are monetary claims against your landlord.
Regardless of whether you need to file an answer, you should attend the hearing. If you don’t show up, the landlord will receive a default judgment. This means they win the eviction lawsuit simply because you didn’t show up to the hearing.
Telling Your Side of the Story: Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaims
When you file an answer, you’ll have the opportunity to defend yourself by including affirmative defenses and counterclaims as part of your answer. At court, you should present evidence to back up whatever defense you put in your answer. Affirmative defenses are objections that you raise to explain why you shouldn’t face an eviction, including:
You didn’t receive proper notice.
The landlord’s claims aren’t true.
The rental unit has safety violations.
You’re facing eviction due to discrimination.
The landlord is trying to evict you in response to you complaining about problems in the apartment.
You can also raise counterclaims, which means you sue for damages. Winning a counterclaim won’t stop the eviction. But it can compensate you for money the landlord owes you or reduce what you owe the landlord. These claims will usually concern disputes over rent.
What Happens After an Eviction Trial?
If the landlord wins at trial, the court will issue a judgment 10 days later. This is called a writ of assistance or a writ of possession. From here, Tennessee law enforcement must immediately act on the writ. State law says the landlord must store anything that you leave behind in the eviction for 30 days.
If you want to appeal an eviction, you have to file the appeal in the 10 days between the judgment and the execution of the writ. The court can help direct you to the appropriate forms to file with the proper appellate court. In the appeal, you will explain why you think the ruling was wrong, and why the court’s error means you shouldn’t be evicted.
Practical Tips for Tenants Facing Eviction in Tennessee
In addition to knowing the state eviction laws, there are practical steps you can take when facing eviction.
Gather evidence that’s relevant to your claims about the property. This could include documents showing rent paid or photos and videos that show the state of the property. You also might want to have a municipal building inspector make a formal report about the property.
If you’re unable to make the eviction hearing, you should reach out to the court and see if they can postpone the hearing. If that’s not possible, ask how you can prevent a default judgment.
If you pay the rent to avoid eviction over a rent dispute, make sure you keep a record of this payment.
Stay in touch with your landlord and try to address any issues early on. This can prevent you from facing eviction. You want to avoid an eviction at all costs, even if you’re about to leave the property. That’s because if an eviction is on your record, it will make it difficult for you to rent in the future.
Similarly, if you’re facing an eviction, you should see if you can negotiate with your landlord or their lawyer to avoid an eviction. The landlord might be willing to drop the eviction lawsuit if you move out quickly. Get any agreement you’re able to make in writing.
Tenant Resources in Tennessee
TN Alliance for Legal Services - Lists Resources for Legal Advice
Information on the Coronavirus Pandemic and Renting in Tennessee