Landlords: How to Handle Tenants Without a Lease

When you have a tenant without a written lease, enforcement of your rights as a landlord can be more difficult. That said, there are laws that protect landlords and a provider lawyer from LegalShield can help you get the best possible outcome. 

close up of hand signing a contract

Landlord's Must Follow State and Federal Security Deposit Laws

The best approach to resolving a common legal issues, such as failure to pay rent, may depend on how the legal relationship developed. Here are the most common scenarios. 

  • You allowed a tenant to move in on a month-to-month basis after a verbal agreement
  • You purchased a property with a tenant already in place and did not sign a new lease
  • Your written lease ended and the tenant has not left
  • Your tenant allowed a friend/roommate to start living in your rental unit without signing a lease

Now, let’s look at how not having an active, written lease impacts your approach to resolving common legal issues. 

Are Verbal Leases Enforceable?

If you are having a legal issue with a tenant that is occupying your property under a verbal lease, before you decide on the best course of action, you first need to determine if the oral agreement would be enforceable in a court of law. 

So, are verbal leases enforceable? The short answer is that it depends. 

Most oral contracts are legally binding on the parties and that includes rental property leases, if the lease meets certain criteria. Generally, oral leases are enforceable if they are for less than a year and you can prove the existence of the agreement. Problems tend to arise when you try to explain to a court exactly what the terms and conditions of the verbal contract were and have no written documentation.  

Statute of Frauds laws in most states make verbal leases for more than a year unenforceable. That said, the doctrine of partial performance, which states that if the parties start performing under the oral agreement by, for example, paying and accepting rent, may turn a lease that is not allowed under the Statute of Frauds into a legally enforceable contract.  

If you’re unsure about the legality of your agreement, it’s best to consult with a lawyer that knows the laws in your state. 

two woman talking
moving compant

Can a Landlord Evict a Tenant Without a Written Lease?

The short answer is yes, but it’s more complicated when there is no written lease in place. 

As with all evictions, landlords must provide proper notice to quit before they begin a formal eviction process. To be enforceable in a court of law, the notice must meet a variety of legal requirements depending on the state, the nature of the tenancy and actions taken by both parties.

To determine notice requirements, you’ll want to determine the type of tenancy you’re dealing with.


A tenant that has permission from a landlord to occupy a property without a formal lease is considered a “tenant-at-will.” Tenancy-at-will is governed by state law and may also be called a month-to-month lease.

Holdover Tenancy

A tenant that originally entered the property under a written lease but has stayed after the lease expired is considered a holdover tenancy. A holdover tenancy can convert to a tenancy-at-will if the landlord accepts rent payments.

Once you’re clear about the nature of the tenancy, you’ll need to follow state law regarding how much time you must give the tenant, how you must serve the notice and several other critical considerations. 

If you join LegalShield, you can download lawyer-drafted documents to begin the process. Then, after you fill out the templates, you can submit them to your provider lawyer for feedback. This way you’ll be sure the approach your taking is appropriate for your specific situation, that the documents follow the law that and that you’d be successful should the dispute end up in court. 

Can a Landlord Sue a Tenant for Damages Without a Lease?

When you’re unable to resolve a dispute with a tenant through friendly negotiation, filing a lawsuit may be the only option available for ending an ongoing problem or recovering financial damages. Here are common legal issues that can end up in court. 

  • Tenant severely damages your property
  • Tenant leaves the property well before the end of the lease term without giving notice
  • Tenant sublets your rental unit without your approval or permission
  • Tenant violates local rules or state laws resulting in fines and penalties in the landlord’s name 

While you can sue a tenant without a lease, there are a few things to consider before you proceed. First, tenants that do not have a written lease may still have significant protection under the law. Second, it can be more difficult to argue and win your case without a written lease to refer to. Lastly, lawsuits can be expensive and time consuming and tenants can file countersuits. 

Before you proceed, speak with a provider lawyer to make sure the law is on your side and that you are likely to be successful. 

broken window
woman talking

Squatter's Rights

A squatter is a person that is living in your property but has no legal claim to it and no lease allowing them to occupy it. Squatters may have rights similar to those of actual tenants. In fact, some of the scenarios we’ve outlined above, such as a tenant allowing a roommate to live in your rental unit without telling you, might make that roommate a squatter.  

  • Is the person a holdover tenant, a squatter or just a common criminal trespasser?
  • What’s the right approach?
  • Should you call the police?
  • Go through formal eviction? 

As with everything else on this page, you must first understand the local and state laws governing your specific situation. For example, in some states, a person occupying the property for a very short period of time or who broke into the property might be considered a trespasser. Trespassers do not have squatter's rights and you can simply call the police to have them removed. 

In other states and scenarios, you may have squatter on your hands and need to go through a formal eviction process, including serving proper notice to quit, just like with a regular tenant. Also, there are steps trespassers can take to turn themselves into squatters and gain legal rights similar to those of a tenant without a lease. 

If you’re not sure exactly what to do, get in contact with a lawyer immediately. Waiting too long or taking the wrong approach can dig a deeper hole. An experienced lawyer can assess the situation, apply local law to the facts and tell you exactly how to resolve the issue as quickly and inexpensively as possible. 

How LegalShield Works

Finding solutions to your legal issues doesn’t have to be stressful, complicated or expensive.

LegalShield puts the power of legal representation within reach of any individual, family or business. We work hard to make it easy, simple and affordable to get the legal help you need, when you need it.

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