Can someone hold your belongings if they claim that you owe rent?

UPDATED: Oct 1, 2022

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Can someone hold your belongings if they claim that you owe rent?

My sister is holding 5000 of my personal property stating I owe her rent. We never agreed to this in writing or verbally. It was understood that I would stay there and be her care giver. She barred me access as she changed the locks. Should I take her to small claims court or the police? This happened in the state of Washington

Asked on September 2, 2017 under Real Estate Law, Washington


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 5 years ago | Contributor

Try calling the police first: they will probably not help, since they tend to incorrectly see this as a "civil," not criminal matter--even though, make no mistake, it is criminal (e.g. theft; extortion)--but contacting them is free; you lose nothing by trying the police, and if they help you, that will get you your belongings.
If they won't help, then you will need to sue. The easiest and fastest way to proceed is what you suggest: a small claims lawsuit for the value of your belongings, which case could be settle or resolved by her returning them. Even IF, for the sake of argument, you owed her rent, she would have no right to hold your belongins unless you had given her a security interest in them. Otherwise, her recourse would be to sue you for the rent she claims you owe.  Therefore, she has no legal right to do this.
If she does sue or countersue for the rent, she'd have to prove the existence of a rental agreement (e.g. an oral or written lease) by documentation, credible testimony, or other evidence. Given the familial relationship, if she does not have a written lease, correspondence acknowledging a landlord-tenant relationship, or copies of checks by which you had evidently been paying her rent, it is unlikely that she will succeed in this regard.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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