If you are caught up in a dispute with your landlord (or you think one is brewing), you may be wondering whether your landlord can make you pay for their legal fees.
Given how expensive lawyers can be, it’s a legitimate concern.
In this article, I am going to answer this question, including the general legal landscape around this issue and what you need to examine in order to determine the right answer in your specific situation.
If you don’t have the time to read through it all, here’s a short answer to the question:
Liability for your landlord’s legal fees will typically be determined based on whether your lease and applicable laws allow such recovery and whether you prevail in court.
Ok, let’s get into it.
The information contained in this post is for informational purposes only. It is not legal advice. You should seek the advice of a qualified legal professional before making any decisions relating to the topics covered by this article.
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Can My Landlord Recover Legal Fees in a Dispute?
Before we begin, let’s discuss exactly what “legal fees” mean in this context.
If you are in a dispute, your landlord may hire an attorney to represent them and file a lawsuit or initiate an eviction proceeding on their behalf. The fees that the lawyer charges the landlord would be included in legal fees.
In addition, there may be filing fees that the court imposes and other legal expenses that the landlord incurs in connection with enforcing their rights under the lease or applicable law.
These types of miscellaneous expenses would also be covered.
Ok, turning now to the main question of whether your landlord can recover legal fees in a dispute, the answer is going to depend on a number of factors.
The key areas to review include your lease agreement, your state and local laws around this issue, and depending on the nature of the dispute, whether you actually win in court. Let’s discuss each of these in turn.
Step 1: Review Your Lease
Your lease is the defining agreement between you and your landlord regarding your rental arrangement, so it’s a logical place to begin.
Read your lease carefully to determine if there are any specific provisions that address legal fees, including attorneys fees and court costs. In my lease, this issues is addressed in three areas: (i) the “Security Deposit” provision, (ii) the “Tenant Obligations” provision; and (iii) the “Costs of Enforcement” provision.
For example, my lease states that the tenant shall pay all costs, expenses, fees, and charges incurred by the Landlord in enforcing any of the provisions of the Lease, including the payment of reasonable attorneys’ fees.
It also states that the landlord may deduct from the security deposit any damages resulting from violating the lease, including reasonable attorneys fees.
Obviously, your lease may differ from mine, but I thought it might be helpful to have an idea of the types of provisions that may contain relevant language on this point.
Ok, if you’ve read your lease and it’s silent or ambiguous on the issue, or you think it might not be in line with legal requirements, then the next step is to review your state and local laws to determine if they permit recovery of attorneys fees and other legal expenses.
Remember that if your lease is in conflict with applicable laws, then the laws will supersede any conflicting provisions in your lease.
Step 2: Check State and Local Laws
In many states and localities, a landlord is permitted to recover legal fees from a tenant provided that the lease clearly stipulates it and the fees are reasonable. In some cases, recovery of attorneys fees will also depend on whether the party has won the underlying lawsuit.
However, there may be exceptions or limitations to the above depending on jurisdiction, so you will need to review laws in your area (or hire a lawyer to assist you) to get a definitive answer.
For your convenience, here’s our 50 state reference table (including D.C.) that will link you to the official landlord tenant laws of your state.
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Step 3: Hire a Qualified Lawyer to Assist You
Speaking of lawyers, it may make sense to hire one, not only help you get a grasp of your potential legal liability, but also to represent you if you are the target of a lawsuit by your landlord.
Of course, you are free to represent yourself, but if the lawsuit can open you up to significant liability, hiring a lawyer (or at least getting an initial consultation) may make sense.
And, as noted above, getting a lawyer to provide you some initial advice does not have to break the bank.
So there you have it – a detailed look at whether your landlord can charge your legal fees and some steps you can take to figure out the answer for your specific situation. Hope this has been helpful and happy renting!