Beware the Gradual Tenant

I practice primarily in Southwest Missouri.  It’s a rural area so my work is varied.  In a week I work on everything from drafting a will, to a property line dispute, a breach of contract, divorce or adoption.  One issue though, seems to come up fairly often and that is landlord/tenant or lease disputes. Here in the country things are pretty casual.  Deals are still made with a handshake and a man is taken at his word.  When that word is broken, well, people of the Ozarks have long memories.  That may be well for some circumstances, but I see a lot of landlords taken advantage of by handshake leases.

You know how it goes.  A property owner tries to help out a down on his luck person and before you know it they are six months behind on the rent and dug into that property like a tick on a hound.  And they can be just as painful to remove.

Worse than that, is the “Unintentional Landlord.”  That is someone who ends up being a landlord when they didn’t intend to be.  For example:  a young lady came to me with this problem recently and in the interest of educating others, I share it with you.

“Lisa’s” boyfriend gradually moved into her house without asking.  It starts with an overnight bag, and then an extra toothbrush, then a set of clothes for work and before you know it, Lisa and “Larry” are living together.  Larry even had his mail forwarded to Lisa’s home without telling her.  One day, she said, she had a boyfriend who needed a short term place to stay, the next she had a roommate.  They lived this way four months when the trouble started.  Lisa insisted they keep their financial matters separate (good call) and that he not pay any bills.  Larry, told her the move was short term because he had to sub-lease his place due to some “financial problems.”

Anyone see a red flag?  Yeah, me too.

During their four month co-habitation, Lisa learned some things about Larry one can only know after living with someone.  Like he’s insane.  I don’t mean alphabetize the pantry, line up the towels insane I mean mood-swinging, odd behavior, clearly in need of psychiatric intervention insane.  Things got so bad Larry attempted suicide and was admitted to the hospital for 14 days of evaluation and treatment.   Frightened and overwhelmed, Lisa wanted him out.  But she wavered and because she felt bad he had no place to go when he got out of the hospital, she let him back in.

Another month goes by and Larry shows no signs of getting his own place. When Lisa broaches the subject he attempts suicide again.  This time he’s in for a longer term of treatment and Lisa is determined to end this occupation.  She wanted to know what her options are in regard to getting him out of her house for good.

Legal problems are rarely the result of just one circumstance or mistake.  Lisa is a very successful young woman.  She owns her home, she has a good job and in most areas of her life she makes very good decisions. Except this one.  Larry manipulated his way into her home and gentle-hearted Lisa let him stay, implying her consent that he live there.  Now, unfortunately for Lisa, getting him out is not as easy as leaving boxes on the curb and changing the locks.

Generally, under Missouri law, Larry has no legal right to live in Lisa’s house.   Rather than leave his things on the curb, she can put it in a storage unit and mail him the key along with a notice to stay away from her house.  The note, I told her, should include clear language that she will prosecute him for trespassing if he returns.   Remember “to be unclear is to be unkind.”  It may be painful, but for a person in Lisa’s position she really must make her needs and expectations clear.  If Larry persists in showing up at her house, I told her she might seek a restraining order.   Kicking Larry out is not just the best thing for Lisa, it’s the best thing for Larry.  By letting him remain in her home she enabled him to continue without psychiatric help and she might have placed herself in real danger.  Had one of his suicide attempts been successful, Lisa and I would have been talking about an entirely different set of problems with long term consequences for her property and well-being.

What we learn from Lisa’s situation is this:  Beware the gradual tenant. If you do decide to move in with someone set ground rules.  If possible draw up an agreement with clear terms defining who stays, for how long and the financial responsibilities of each person.  It doesn’t have to be formal.  It doesn’t even have to be typed.  But it does need to be understood and signed by all parties.

Do you and your potential housemates the courtesy and respect of good communication so they can meet your expectations and you can meet theirs.  It makes for a much happier home.

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