The relationship between landlords and tenants is often cordial for the most part but things can quickly degenerate over time. For example, a tenant owing a needy landlord rent money is potentially asking for trouble and may soon have an eviction notice to contend with. In Washington, just as in all other U.S. states, the eviction process follows certain legally enshrined steps, which guarantee some rights and protection to both landlord and tenant.
This post sheds some light on the key steps involved in Washington's eviction process as of 2023.
The eviction process in Washington commences with an eviction notice from the landlord to the tenant. Washington landlords can serve several different types of eviction notices to their tenants, depending on the reason for eviction. The notice must be properly served and the tenant must have failed to comply, pay rent, or vacate within the stipulated time. It is extremely important that both parties put down any agreement they reach in writing for future reference. If the tenant fails to meet all required conditions, the landlord can then begin the eviction court process through an “unlawful detainer” eviction lawsuit, called a "Summons and Complaint." The most common eviction notices in Washington are:
- The 14-Day Notice to Pay or Vacate.
- The 10-Day Notice to Comply With the Terms of the Rental Agreement or Vacate.
- The 3-Day Notice for Waste or Nuisance.
Posting an Eviction Notice
The eviction notice does not need to be delivered by the Sheriff or notarized for it to be valid. RCW 59.12.040 specifies that it can be delivered through personal service to the tenant by the landlord or through another person of suitable age and discretion who lives there. If nobody of suitable age and discretion is around, the notice may be posted on the door of the rental unit, provided it is also sent to the tenant's mail. If the notice is posted on the door and sent via mail, the day it was served is not counted in the notice’s timeframe (unlike weekends). At the early stage of the eviction process, there may be a brief period in which the tenant can negotiate directly with the landlord to halt the eviction.
14-Day Notice to Pay or Vacate
To win the rental property owner for non-payment of rent in a superior court, the tenant must prove that they do not owe the rent the unit's owner is asking for. A 14-day pay or vacate notice doesn't imply that the tenant must vacate the premises within 14 days. Eviction must pass through a court, so a landlord cannot simply throw their tenant out without a court order. Washington State law mandates the landlord to accept the rent payment if it is made in full and paid within the 14-day window. This will mean that it’s no longer necessary to continue the eviction process.
In contrast, the landlord may continue with the eviction process by going to court if the tenant makes a partial payment or pays after 14 days. A landlord is not required to accept partial rent payments during the 14-day window, though they may decide to. Once in court, some landlords decline to accept any money from the tenant until after the completion of court proceedings. If possible, a tenant should always prioritize rental payments above other financial commitments. The law does not explicitly exempt those who have lost their jobs or experiencing some other unexpected loss of income or personal tragedies from rent payments. Also, Washington State law does not permit tenants not to pay rent because of unmade repairs (except in limited cases), complaints against the landlord, or money owed to them by the landlord.
Some Washington tenants decide to vacate their rental unit within the 14-day window in order to avoid the eviction lawsuit. However, if a tenant has yet to complete paying rent before vacating, their landlord can still file a lawsuit against them or send them to collections in an attempt to recover the debt. A tenant who is just one day or one penny short on paying rent can be served with a 14-Day Notice to Pay or Vacate. Most rental agreements stipulate a due date for rent payments, (usually the first of the month). The Washington State Residential Landlord-Tenant Act does not specifically provide tenants with a grace period of any kind. But some rental agreements include a grace period before rent payment will be considered late, (usually 3 to 5 days after the due date). If the grace period elapses with the tenant still defaulting on paying rent in full, their landlord can serve them a 14-day Pay or Vacate Notice and also issue a late fee.
If a landlord accepts their tenant’s rent payment after serving the tenant an eviction notice, the tenant should ensure that the payment is documented in writing. This is because, in some (but not all) situations, the payment may invalidate the eviction notice. If the tenant negotiated a payment plan with their landlord, both parties should also try to put the agreed amounts to be paid in a written document that will specify that any likely eviction proceedings will be stopped once the tenant meets the agreed conditions. Keeping documentation of all rent payments can help protect the interests of both parties. Tenants should try to pay rent in full within 14 days since it is the best way to stop the continuation of an eviction process.
The 14-day notice may reach the tenant through personal service by the landlord or served to the tenant by a person of suitable age and discretion in their household, in person. It can also be posted on their door, provided it is sent to them by mail as well. Note that incorrect service does not invalidate an eviction action but may be raised as a defense against eviction. it is not sensible for a tenant to ignore an eviction notice or decide not to communicate with their landlord about the notice or their inability to pay rent. Negotiating with your landlord can sometimes lead to a mutually acceptable resolution and avoidance of eviction. A landlord who does not hear from their tenant after issuing them an eviction notice for refusing to pay rent may feel they have no option but to file an eviction lawsuit.
Order of Limited Dissemination
If the tenant is unable to pay rent, they should try and vacate the rental unit within the 14-day window so that the landlord won't have to take them to an eviction court, Additionally, vacating before 14 days will ensure that the tenant avoids having an eviction lawsuit on their record or having to need an Order of Limited Dissemination (or Order for Limited Dissemination) to prevent one.
As implied earlier, documenting all rent payments is crucial. For example, it can help the tenant avoid being wrongfully evicted. Making payments via a drop box, or in cash without being issued a receipt by the landlord can leave a tenant vulnerable to claims that the money went missing or was never received. The tenant should pay rent via personal check when possible. If it is not possible, a money order is another good option, but be sure to have some evidence by making a photocopy of the money order after filling it out before separating it from the stub. Sometimes it can take long for the money order company to recover a requested documentation, often too long before the eviction process concludes.
The tenant should write what the check or money order is meant for on the front, e.g., “January rent in full only.” A landlord is meant to apply the rent money from their tenant solely to rent before other fees, but being explicit by stating the purpose of the check or money order is a good precaution against diversion. If the tenant makes a cash payment, the landlord must automatically provide them with a receipt as stated in RCW 59.18.063. Alternatively, the tenant can prepare a receipt and have the landlord sign and date. They can also come with a third-party witness who will verify that the rent was delivered and received.
10-Day Notice to Comply or Vacate
The landlord may serve their tenant a 10-Day Notice to Comply or Vacate because of a violation (or an alleged violation) of the rental agreement. The notice should indicate the section of the rental agreement that is being violated. If the tenant fails to comply after the 10-day window, the landlord may continue the eviction process. Under RCW 59.18.190, the notice expires after 60 days.
A tenant must respond to the 10-day notice in writing stating that they are or will be complying with the rental agreement. The tenant should endeavor to attach all necessary written documentation to support their case. They may decide to vacate the unit within the 10-day time frame rather than comply with the terms of the lease. In such a situation, the landlord can no longer proceed with an unlawful detainer action against the tenant, and the tenant will escape having an eviction on their record.
A tenant who disagrees with their landlord’s claim of non-compliance can write a letter back to the landlord requesting that they withdraw the notice. Backing up the letter with some evidence is a good idea. For example, if the notice is about a noise complaint and it happened that the tenant had traveled out of town during the said period, the tenant can provide evidence that they were not in the rental unit when the alleged noise occurred.
3-Day Notice for Waste, Nuisance, or Illegal Activity
In this context, waste and nuisance indicate a serious offense by the tenant, for example, significant destruction of part of the rental unit as well as crimes such as drug or gang-related crimes. Waste, nuisance, or illegal activity notice is not as common as the others but requires prompt action by any tenant who is served one. In the 3-Day Notice for Waste, Nuisance, or Illegal Activity, the tenant has no compliance option but is rather required to vacate the property immediately or face an eviction lawsuit.
A common misuse of this notice is for the above-mentioned noise violation. Being loud cannot be considered a “nuisance” for the purposes of this law. Noise violations are best addressed with a 10-day notice to comply or vacate since waste or nuisance violations are generally regarded as far more serious than noise complaints.
Summons and Complaint
If the tenant continues to stay in the rental unit after the expiration of the landlord's notice to vacate, then the landlord must contact a neutral third party such as the Sheriff or a process server to serve the eviction lawsuit notice to the tenant. Washington State law does not permit landlords to serve the notice themselves. The lawsuit notice is made up of a couple of documents that are served together, and constitute the earlier-mentioned Summons and Complaint.
Since the Summons and Complaint is often served without having been filed in the superior court, it does not necessarily mean that a tenant will have an eviction on their record upon receiving them. Rather, it means that the tenant can still try to settle the matter with their landlord before the lawsuit in court. Once the lawsuit is filed at the courthouse, an eviction record is created or avoided if the tenant can get an Order for Limited Dissemination. No matter the outcome of the lawsuit, an eviction record can lead to the tenant being denied housing by a tenant screening company in the future.
A tenant who does not respond to the Summons and Complaint will automatically lose the eviction case via a default judgment. The response date is usually written on the front page of the Summons. The deadline for responding is usually 7 days from the date the tenant received the Summons and Complaint. The answer can be filed by the tenant in person, by mail, or by fax but it must be received within the deadline.
The answer or response is an opportunity for the tenant to explain the circumstances surrounding the eviction and put forward any defenses they have against the eviction lawsuit. In order not to automatically waive their right to a court hearing, the tenant's answer to the Summons and Complaint must be submitted to the court in writing before the due date. A tenant wishing to appear in court, at the bare minimum, must inform the landlord’s attorney to that effect by filing a "Notice of Appearance."
It is very important for the tenant to document that the landlord or their attorney received their response before the deadline. If the lawsuit has already been filed in court, then the tenant must file their response with the court in addition to that filed with the landlord’s attorney.
Payment or Sworn Statement Requirement
Under Washington State law, some tenants may also be served a notice titled “RCW 59.18.375 Payment or Sworn Statement Requirement” simultaneously with the summons and complaint or soon after the latter is delivered. In addition to filing an answer or Notice of Appearance, a tenant served the Payment or Sworn Statement Requirement notice must also file a sworn statement with the superior court or pay the amount they owe the landlord into the court registry within 7 days of the date the case is filed with the court (or by the deadline stated on the notice).
The Payment or Sworn Statement Requirement notice can only be used in eviction lawsuits arising from 14-day notices to pay rent or vacate (and not with any other type of notice). Paying the money into the court registry as required by the notice does not halt the eviction process. Essentially, it will just “buy” the tenant an opportunity to have a court hearing.
Show Cause Hearing
If the landlord serves their tenant an Order to Show Cause alongside the Summons and Complaint, it means the landlord has scheduled an eviction court hearing. The show cause hearing is the tenant’s chance to present all defenses they have against the eviction lawsuit. During the hearing, the judge hears both sides of the matter and then makes a ruling. The court provides interpreters for non-native English speakers who ask for such. The judge will decide if the tenant has a good defense against the eviction. The tenant may win the case right there or the judge might decide on a full trial if the tenant's defense is deemed not strong enough. However, instead of taking the tenant to court, the landlord’s attorney may offer them a stipulation, or settlement agreement.
The vast majority of eviction lawsuits are ruled in the landlord’s favor. If the landlord wins the lawsuit, a judgment will be pronounced against the tenant according to the amount owed as rent and up to $75 in late fees awarded to the landlord. The tenant also bears the court costs and, in some cases, attorney’s fees.
If the tenant wins, the case is dismissed but the eviction filing will still appear on their record, unless they obtain the afore-mentioned Order of Limited Dissemination. If a tenant being evicted for failing to pay rent loses in an eviction court but has an unexpired lease term, they can revalidate the tenancy by paying the full amount of the judgment into the court's registry.
Writ of Restitution
Following a tenant's defeat at an eviction lawsuit, they are served a Writ of Restitution by the Sheriff. The Writ of Restitution serves as official notification of when the Sheriff will visit the rental unit to oversee the tenant's eviction from the property if they are yet to vacate 3-4 days after the court's ruling. Hence, a tenant who receives a Writ of Restitution must vacate the rental property before deadline day or face forced eviction.
Only in very rare circumstances can an eviction be canceled once a writ has been issued. A notable example is if the tenant was evicted because of owing rent, in which case they may be able to "reinstate" the lease provided they can pay all the money that they owe. This can be achieved by filing a “Motion for Reinstatement” at the court. If the tenant plans to vacate without being forcefully evicted, they can call the Sheriff's office to notify them about when they'll leave the unit. The landlord has the right to call off the eviction at any time in the process.
Landlords have an obligation to store any of the tenant's properties that remain in the unit after the enforcement of the Writ of Restitution. However, they must receive a written request from the tenant within 3 days of the writ being issued. The tenant may be liable for the costs of storage and hauling of their remaining properties.
It usually takes around 3 weeks to conclude an eviction process in Washington State, though this timeline can vary due to the several variables capable of impacting the duration of the process. The example timeline below is for eviction due to non-payment of rent. The timeline is based on the assumption that the landlord is handling the eviction process as fast as permitted by the law. Note that the example timeline is just a sample and that an eviction case may last much longer.
Due date for rent payment by the tenant.
The tenant still has not paid rent prompting their landlord to serve them a 14-day notice to pay or vacate.
It is now either the tenant comes up with the rent payment in full within 14 days or they vacate the rental property. The landlord has the right to decline any partial payments from the tenant but must accept full payment if made within 14 days. Additional late payment fees are not part of the 14-day notice.
The landlord's rent remains unpaid after the expiration of the 14-day window. They now have the option of proceeding with an unlawful detainer lawsuit (an eviction Summons and Complaint) against the tenant. This marks the commencement of legal eviction action. The Summons and Complaint may be accompanied by a Payment or Sworn Statement Requirement and an Order to Show Cause.
Time for the tenant’s answer. If the tenant fails to answer, the court will rule against them via a default judgment. After the tenant files an answer, the show cause hearing date will be scheduled if it has not been fixed already. The hearing can proceed as soon as the day after the tenant's answer is due or scheduled for a later date.
Possible holding of the show cause hearing where the judge decides whether to free the tenant of the landlord's charges or proceed to a full trial. If the landlord wins the full trial, the court will, among other pronouncements, issue a Writ of Restitution authorizing the Sheriff to evict the tenant by force if necessary. If the tenant wins, the case is dismissed. However, the eviction filing will still appear on the tenant’s record, unless they get an Order of Limited Dissemination.
The Sheriff serves the tenant the Writ of Restitution, usually by posting it on their door. The name and phone number of the Sheriff are stamped on the top of the writ. The tenant can contact the Sheriff's office to alert them about when they intend to quit the unit.
It's now 3-4 days since the eviction judgment against the tenant. Day 30 happens to be the first day the Sheriff can legally enforce the writ. It is also the deadline for the tenant to serve a request to have their property stored by the landlord.
Day 31 or 32
The writ is usually enforced a day or two after the first day it can legally be enforced. The Sheriff visits the rental property to monitor the landlord's eviction of the tenant and their belongings if they are still occupying the rental unit.
Termination of Tenancy
Termination of tenancy is not the same as an eviction. A termination occurs when a landlord ends a rental agreement with their tenant before the expiration of the agreement and subsequently asks the tenant to vacate the rental unit. Tenancy can be terminated without the various steps involved in an eviction process, including court proceedings.
In Washington, month-to-month tenants must be served a written notice of at least 20 days before the end of the rental period being terminated. 20-day notices are sometimes referred to as “No Cause” notices. In a majority of Washington's cities, the landlord is not required by law to give a reason why they are terminating a tenancy. In addition, there are currently no extensions in Washington State law. The relationship between termination of tenancy and eviction is that a tenant who has received a 20-Day Notice to Vacate but fails to vacate within that period becomes a “holdover” tenant whose landlord can file an eviction lawsuit against. However, there's an exception to this general rule in the city of Seattle known as the Just Cause Eviction Protection. This Seattle law mandates landlords to provide a ‘just cause’ for the eviction or termination of the tenancy of month-to-month tenants.
Illegal Landlord Activity Examples
Landlords enjoy a variety of rights in the state of Washington but there are also some landlord excesses that clearly border on illegality. Here are some examples:
Self-help evictions are illegal under RCW 59.18.290. The code stipulates that a landlord has no right to remove their tenant from their rental property without a court order. Evictions must be approved by a court and notice to such effect must be served by a County Sheriff. The Sheriff must also oversee the tenant's eviction from the property if the said tenant fails to vacate within the court-approved deadline. A tenant who is being illegally evicted from their unit can call the police.
The same RCW 59.18.290 captures the illegality of lockouts in Washington. No landlord is permitted to restrict a tenant from access to their rented unit by changing the locks, even if the tenant is facing an unlawful detainer lawsuit or already has a Writ of Restitution issued against them. A tenant who is illegally locked out has the right to regain access to their unit but must bear the cost of any damages they do to the unit while trying to regain access.
According to RCW 59.18.300, the intentional shutoff of a tenant’s utility services, except for brief periods in order to fix problems, is illegal in Washington State. The tenant can head to a small claims court to recover damages of up to $100 a day or actual damages from the portion of a day they were denied utilities.
Taking or Keeping Tenant Property in Lieu of Rental Payments
It is illegal for a Washington landlord to confiscate a tenant’s property to cover the cost of rent or other debt owed by the tenant. This position is backed by RCW 59.18.230 of Washington State. A tenant faced with such a situation can write a letter to the landlord demanding the return of their property. If the landlord does not return the property, the tenant can sue them for the value of the confiscated property (actual damages). if the landlord intentionally refuses to return the property, they may face a fine of up to $500 a day for every day the tenant is without the property, up to a total of $5000.
Retaliatory or Discriminatory Terminations of Tenancy and Rent Increases
Washington's landlord-tenant Act (RCW.59.240, RCW 59.18.250) prohibits landlords from taking retaliatory and discriminatory measures against tenants. Some landlords may want to retaliate against a tenant for complaining or reporting them to government authorities about genuine concerns such as repairs. Such retaliations could be in the form of trying to evict the tenant, increasing the tenant's rent, reducing services to the tenant, and increasing the tenant's obligations.
A Washington court may determine that the landlord illegally retaliated against the tenant if the landlord took negative action against the tenant within 90 days of the tenant asserting their rights under the landlord-tenant law. Retaliation can be raised as a defense in a tenant's written answer (and verbally as well) in court against eviction. However, retaliation can be very difficult to prove and may not be enough to warrant the discontinuation of an eviction lawsuit.
Similarly, terminations or evictions based on discrimination (race, gender, etc) are illegal and can also be raised as a defense against an eviction lawsuit. Just like retaliation, discrimination can be extremely hard to prove and may be considered insufficient grounds to discontinue an eviction case.
The eviction process in Washington commences with a notice to vacate from landlord to tenant. After this first step comes a series of other steps that culminate in a Writ of Restitution which formally empowers the Sheriff to forcefully evict the erring tenant, if necessary. It is very important that both parties document any agreement they reach in writing for future reference. Because of the lengthy, time and money-consuming nature of an eviction process, it is always better if both parties can find an amicable solution before going to court. if you are a Washington landlord, Steadily can offer you the necessary insurance coverage to help you through the legal costs that may arise from tenancy matters, including eviction costs.