Overview of Unlawful Detainer Legal Actions
Unlawful detainer law in Washington State is characterized by very specific and nuanced procedural rules, which if followed properly, will allow a landlord to evict a problematic tenant. Washington’s Landlord Tenant Act, RCW 59.18, and Washington’s Unlawful Detainer Act, RCW 59.12, contain procedural and legal rules that a landlord must adhere to in an eviction. Failure to properly follow these rules will very likely result in a Judge denying the landlord’s request for an eviction, and ordering them to correct the problem, or potentially even forcing them to start the process over.
Typically, most evictions occur because a tenant has defaulted on their rental payment requirements under the lease. Once a tenant has failed to pay rent a landlord can initiate the unlawful detainer process by delivering a “Fourteen Day Notice to Pay or Vacate.” This notice gives the tenant fourteen days following the date of delivery/service to pay what is owed or to vacate the premises.
Proper delivery of this notice is critical. Delivery can be achieved in three ways: (1) By personally handing it to a tenant named in the notice; (2) By personally handing it to someone of suitable age and discretion at the property and by mailing a copy addressed to the tenants; or (3) if no one can be located at the property, by conspicuously posting a copy of the notice and mailing a copy addressed to the tenants. If the matter proceeds to a hearing, the landlord will have to demonstrate proper delivery of the notice.
There are other types of notices for other ways in which tenants’ actions can force a landlord to begin an eviction. This includes a ten day notice for failure to comply with a condition of the lease (other than pay rent), three day notice to correct waste, nuisance, or unlawful business upon the property, and three day notice to vacate after entering without permission or color of title. Finally, the unlawful detainer process can be started if a tenant remains in the property after expiration of the lease term or after a month-to-month tenancy has been properly terminated.
Once the applicable period of time under the notice has passed, the tenant is unlawfully detaining the property if they have not paid or vacated and the landlord may then start legal proceedings. Typically, this means that the landlord (or more commonly their attorney) will prepare summons and complaint documents, informing the tenant of the landlord’s intention to evict them, and their claim for monetary damages owed to them by the tenant if applicable. These documents must be timely personally served on the tenants, typically by a process server.
The summons will state a deadline for the tenant’s written response and instructions for delivering that response. If the tenant fails to timely respond, the landlord can file the case in the Superior Court and appear in court to seek a default judgment by filing a Motion for Default Judgment and Writ of Restitution. At this hearing, the Judge can issue an Order for a Writ of Restitution and a Default Judgment.
If the tenant does respond to the summons, the landlord must file the case, and appear in court to ask the Court to issue an Order to Show Cause. This Order will contain a hearing date for the Show Cause hearing. This Order must be timely served on the tenants along with the landlord’s motion asking the Court to issue a Writ of Restitution and Monetary Judgment.
At the Show Cause hearing, both sides must appear before the Court and make their arguments for and against the eviction and judgment. It is possible that if the case is very complex, the Court may set the hearing over for an unlawful detainer trial. The Judge will make a ruling to issue a Writ of Restitution if they find that the tenant has unlawfully detained the property and the landlord has adhered to all procedural rules.
Once the court has issued an Order for a Writ, a Writ of Restitution will then be issued by the Clerk of the Court, and must be delivered to the County Sheriff for execution. County Sheriffs in Washington State have their own specific formatting and paperwork requirements for Writs of Restitution, so the landlord must be sure that their documents are in compliance. If the documents are proper, the Sheriff’s Department will deliver and execute the writ, and will coordinate with the landlord to hand over possession back to the landlord.