Eviction Laws and Tenant Rights in Wisconsin
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Landlords in Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated December 14, 2021
Under Wisconsin law, renters have certain legal rights in the eviction process. Understanding Wisconsin’s eviction laws and the legal rights they give to renters can help you prepare for or even prevent eviction.
This article provides an overview of Wisconsin’s eviction laws and tenant rights. If you’re currently a renter in Wisconsin and you’re facing eviction, late on rent, or receiving threats from your landlord, the information in this article can help.
What Is Eviction?
Eviction is the legal process landlords use to remove a renter from a rental property. To evict a renter (or tenant) the landlord has to show a court that they have a legal justification to end the lease and remove the renter from the property. If the landlord succeeds, the court will award them a court order, which can then be used to complete the eviction process. Generally, landlords must have a court order to evict a tenant. Evicting a tenant from a property without the court order is called an illegal eviction or illegal lockout.
Who Can Be Evicted in Wisconsin?
The eviction process applies only to those with a landlord-tenant relationship. A landlord-tenant relationship is an agreement between a landlord and a tenant, where the tenant agrees to pay rent to the landlord in exchange for housing.
In Wisconsin, it’s common for people to live in a house with a tenant without being tenants themselves. For example, a friend may move in with a tenant without signing the lease agreement, also called a rental agreement. Generally, people living with a tenant can also be evicted, even if they’re not on the lease.
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Why Can Someone Be Evicted in Wisconsin?
In Wisconsin, if the tenant signed a lease, the landlord can’t evict a tenant before the lease ends simply because they don’t want them living there anymore. They must have a valid reason. There are three common valid reasons to evict a tenant:
Failure to pay rent. If a tenant hasn’t paid the full rent amount, has paid rent late, or is currently behind on rent, the landlord can initiate the eviction process.
Breach of the lease or rental agreement. Tenants must abide by the terms of the lease agreement they sign. Breaching the terms of the agreement, including terms other than the required rent, can lead to eviction.
Lease expiration. Lease agreements are generally for a given term. Once the term of the agreement ends, the landlord may choose not to renew the agreement.
In Wisconsin, landlords must end the lease agreement before filing an eviction lawsuit. To end the lease, landlords are required to give renters an eviction notice. The amount of required notice depends on the reason for the eviction.
The eviction process changes slightly for different types of eviction. Below, you’ll find the required legal procedure for each type of eviction.
Late, Short, or Behind on Rent?
Paying rent late, not paying enough, or falling behind on payments can all lead to eviction. In Wisconsin, it doesn’t matter whether you owe $1 or $100 dollars in back rent. In either case, you’ve violated the lease agreement. Rent is considered late the day after it’s due.
To begin an eviction for late or missing rent, the landlord must first send the tenant a notice terminating the lease. The type of notice the landlord sends will depend on the term of the lease.
5-Day Notice With the Right To Cure
In Wisconsin, tenants with a lease term of one year or less must first receive a 5-day notice with the right to cure for the nonpayment of rent. When a tenant has a right to cure, it means they have the right to resolve any current violations. In the case of missing rent, the 5-day notice gives the tenant five days to pay any missing or late rent. If the tenant doesn’t pay, then the landlord will begin the eviction process through the court.
If a tenant has a lease of one year or less and they don’t pay any missing rent or fees after receiving the 5-day notice, then the landlord can send a 14-day notice to vacate. Tenants who receive this notice have to leave within 14 days even if they can now make payments.
Lease Expiration or Termination
In Wisconsin, landlords can also evict a tenant after the landlord has terminated the lease or if the lease has expired. In both cases, the landlord is alleging that the tenant no longer has the right to live in the property, regardless of whether the tenant is current on rent.
Still, lease expiration and lease termination are two different processes. In Wisconsin, there are important differences between the two that impact tenant rights.
When a lease expires, it means that the term of the lease has ended according to the agreement. To evict a tenant when a lease expires in Wisconsin, all the landlord needs to do is not renew the lease. If the lease term has expired but the landlord allows the tenant to continue to live in the property and accepts regular rent payments, then the landlord has to treat the renter as a month-to-month tenant and provide a 28-day eviction notice.
When a landlord terminates a lease, they end it early. Landlords can terminate a lease for nonpayment of rent or late fees or for other violations of the lease agreement. For example, if a tenant has an unauthorized pet, the landlord can terminate the lease once they give the tenant appropriate notice.
If a landlord decides to terminate a lease for a lease violation other than nonpayment of rent, they must follow Wisconsin's notification laws. If the lease term is one year or less, the following notice requirements apply:
5-day notice with the right to cure. The landlord must first give the tenant a 5-day notice with the right to cure. The tenant then has five days to comply with the lease.
14-day notice without the right to cure. If the tenant doesn’t resolve the lease violation within five days, then the landlord will send the tenant a 14-day notice to vacate the property.
5-day notice for drug- or gang-related activity. If the tenant is engaging in drug- or gang-related criminal activity, the landlord can provide a 5-day notice to vacate. They don’t have to the tenant the right to cure.
In Wisconsin, landlords can offer month-to-month leases and tenancies longer than a year. Both of these types of leases have eviction notice requirements.
Unlike with one-year leases, landlords who want to evict a month-to-month tenant for violating the lease agreement don’t have to send a 5-day notice with a right to cure. Instead, as soon as they’re aware of the lease violation, they can send a 14-day notice to vacate. If the landlord wants to terminate the lease without reason, then they must provide a 28-day notice.
Leases Longer Than a Year
If a landlord wants to evict tenants for violating a lease agreement that’s longer than a year, they must provide a 30-day notice with the right to cure. Like 5-day notice with the right to cure, tenants have the right to resolve the violation of the lease agreement.
The Wisconsin Eviction Process
In Wisconsin, all landlords must file a lawsuit and get a court order to complete the eviction process. Before filing a lawsuit, landlords must follow certain procedures.
What does a landlord have to do to begin an eviction?
To begin an eviction, the landlord first has to send the tenant a written notice of their intention to terminate the lease. The landlord can give the tenant the notice in one of the following ways:
They can personally deliver it to the tenant.
They can leave a copy at the tenant’s home with a family member who’s at least 14 years old and responsible enough to give the notice to the tenant.
They can leave a copy with any competent person apparently in charge of the rental property or occupying the property. If they do this, they must also mail a second copy to the tenant's last known address.
If the notice can’t be given using the above options, then the landlord can give notice by posting a copy of the notice in an obvious place on the rental property and then mailing a second copy to the tenant’s last known address.
The type of notice the landlord has to send depends on the term of the lease and the reason they’re evicting the tenant.
If the lease is one year long or less, then the landlord generally must send a 5-day notice with the right to cure before filing an eviction lawsuit. The notice must explain which term of the lease agreement the tenant has violated. Once the landlord has given the tenant notice, they must wait for five days. During that time, the tenant has the opportunity to “cure” the breach of the lease. Curing means resolving any violation of the lease’s terms.
Once those five days are up, if the tenant hasn’t cured the breach, the landlord will send a 14-day eviction notice telling the tenant that they must leave at the end of those 14 days. A 14-day notice doesn’t give tenants the right to cure any violations of the lease agreement. The landlord can also file an eviction lawsuit at this time.
After complying with Wisconsin's notice requirements, the landlord can file an eviction action in court.
What happens once the eviction action is filed with the court?
In Wisconsin, landlords generally file eviction lawsuits in small claims court as a civil lawsuit. Once the eviction lawsuit is filed, the tenant (who’s the defendant in eviction cases) must be served with notice of the lawsuit.
Service is the process of informing the defendant of the lawsuit by giving them a summons and complaint. A summons notifies the defendant that the landlord has filed an eviction lawsuit against them. It also lists the date and location of the initial hearing. The defendant must attend this hearing if they would like to argue their case. The court date may be listed as an initial hearing, a joinder conference, or a return date.
Like other civil cases, landlords have to comply with certain service requirements under state law. The landlord has the following three options to serve a tenant with a summons and complaint:
They can personally notify the tenant by giving them the summons.
If they can’t serve the tenant personally, the landlord can leave a copy of the summons at the person's home with a competent family member who’s at least 14 years old or with an adult who lives at the home. An adult living at the home does not need to be a family member to accept service.
If neither of those two options is available, the landlord can publish the summons in a local newspaper and mail a copy of the summons to the tenant’s home.
In some counties, the court clerk may be allowed to serve a tenant by certified mail. Tenants must be served at least five days before the scheduled court date. Once served with the lawsuit, the tenant will need to file a written answer to the complaint. The answer should provide “valid legal grounds” for stopping the eviction. How to answer a complaint will depend on the court in which the lawsuit was filed.
A court hearing will be held no sooner than five days after the tenant has been served with the summons and no later than 25 days after the landlord filed the complaint. Tenants MUST attend the hearing. If they don’t attend the initial hearing, the court will issue a default judgment against them. A default judgment means the landlord wins and can move forward with the eviction.
At the initial hearing, the court will first try to determine if the landlord and tenant can reach a settlement agreement. A settlement agreement could be a payment plan to catch up on past-due rent, or the tenant may agree to move out of the property by a certain date.
If neither party is willing to settle, then the court will decide whether there are valid legal grounds for stopping the eviction. Landlords will most likely come prepared to argue why the tenant should be evicted. Tenants should come prepared as well to show that there are valid legal grounds to stop the eviction. In addition to filing the answer, tenants should prepare their arguments and bring any evidence they have to support their arguments to the initial hearing.
If the judge determines there are valid legal grounds to stop the eviction, they will schedule a trial.
Telling Your Side of the Story: Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaims
If you want to stop an eviction, you must present a successful argument to the court about why you shouldn’t be evicted. To do this, you generally need to show that the landlord’s allegations that you violated the lease agreement aren’t true. For example, if the landlord alleges that you had an unauthorized pet, you might present evidence showing that there was no pet in the property.
Another way you can argue that you shouldn’t be evicted is by presenting affirmative defenses and/or counterclaims.
An affirmative defense is when you admit to a landlord’s allegation but provide a justification for it. A common affirmative defense to eviction in Wisconsin is that the lease term you violated is an illegal term. Illegal lease terms in the state of Wisconsin aren’t enforceable.
You can also argue that the landlord failed to give proper notice before filing an eviction lawsuit. For example, say your landlord filed a lawsuit for late rent without first giving you a 5-day notice with a right to cure. If the lease required a 5-day notice, you can argue that even if you were late paying rent, the landlord didn’t provide proper notice.
A counterclaim in an eviction lawsuit is when a tenant files a claim against the landlord in response to the eviction lawsuit. Instead of providing a defense, the tenant argues that the landlord has broken the law. A common counterclaim is that the landlord’s decision to evict the tenant was motivated by discrimination, not a lease violation. In this case, you can argue that the landlord’s actions violated the Fair Housing Act or Wisconsin’s Fair Housing Law.
Another common counterclaim is that the landlord filed the eviction action in retaliation. In Wisconsin, certain retaliatory conduct is prohibited.
When do you present your defense?
Tenants must present valid legal grounds to stop the eviction at the initial hearing. This is BEFORE the judge schedules a trial. Then, the tenant needs to prove their case at the trial.
What Happens After an Eviction Trial?
The court may enter a judgment on the same day as the trial or at a later date. If a tenant loses their eviction case and a judgment is entered in the landlord’s favor, the tenant can file an appeal within 15 days.
If the court rules the landlord’s favor, they can proceed to remove the tenant from the property with the help of a sheriff. The process of physically removing the tenant from the property is called the execution of the eviction. Execution can only be carried out after the court issues a writ of restitution, which is delivered to the sheriff's office. The writ of restitution allows law enforcement to formally remove the tenant from the property.
Practical Tips for Tenants Facing Eviction in Wisconsin
If you’re facing eviction, there are some things you can do to prepare yourself for the eviction proceedings. Below are tips to help you assert your tenant rights in Wisconsin.
Collect as much evidence as possible.
If you’re facing eviction, you should gather any documents, photos, videos, and other evidence supporting any defense, affirmative defense, or counterclaim you want to make in court. If you’re alleging that the building is unlivable or in very poor condition, it’s generally good to ask the municipal building inspector to come to inspect the property. The inspector can then issue a report about the property’s condition, which you can bring to the initial hearing.
If you can’t appear, reschedule the initial hearing.
If you can’t appear for a scheduled court date, you should contact the court clerk and ask for a continuance or ask that the court be alerted that you won’t be attending. The number for the court clerk should be on the summons. If you miss the court date without rescheduling, the court will likely enter a default judgment against you.
Be sure to cure correctly.
If you cure a breach of the lease agreement during the 5-day notice period, it’s important to be careful with when and how you cure it. First, make sure to do it before the five days are up. Second, if the breach involves nonpayment of rent, make the payment directly to the landlord’s company and keep a record of it, so you have proof.
Be a proactive communicator.
Proactive communication can help prevent an eviction lawsuit. This is important because even just having an eviction lawsuit filed against you can damage your rental history for many years. With proactive communication, you can either come to an agreement with your landlord or at least have records to help protect your rights.
You should keep a record of all communications. You can do this by keeping communication in writing or via email, recording phone calls, or taking notes either during or directly after any communication with the landlord.
Try to negotiate a settlement.
If your landlord files an eviction, you can still attempt to negotiate a settlement. Some landlords will drop the case if you agree to pay a certain amount or move out by a certain time. Make sure that any agreement you make with your landlord is in writing and is signed by both you and the landlord.
Tenant Resources in Wisconsin
Below are resources for tenants facing eviction in Wisconsin:
The Tenant Resource Center: The Tenant Resource Center is a nonprofit dedicated to helping renters by providing legal information and access to community advocates.
Legal Action of Wisconsin (LAW): LAW is a legal aid organization. Tenant rights lawyers from LAW can represent renters in eviction hearings and other eviction proceedings.
Guide for Landlords and Tenants: A useful guide from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP).
In 2020, the federal government issued a nationwide eviction moratorium due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These laws are now changing and eviction moratoriums are expiring. For more information about the coronavirus in Wisconsin, read DATCP’s Landlord-Tenant COVID-19 FAQ. You can also visit HUD.gov's COVID-19 resource page for renters.