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There were 4 of us living in a condo, all 4 of us were on the lease and we paid rent separately to the landlord. The landlord covers the water bill and nothing else for utilities per our lease. The electricity bill and internet bills are under my name and I pay them in full each month with the expectation that everyone will pay their share of utilities (1/4th) to me.

All 3 roommates owe me for at least a few months of utilities each, with the total amount coming to about $1500 for everyone. This is a considerable amount of money for me, and while I do make enough and have enough in savings to continue to pay my bills I would much rather get the money back if possible. So I'm considering taking my roommates to small claims court as most/all have made it clear they won't give me anything (besides excuses and empty promises).

The problem is that there is no written agreement between us that we would split the bills evenly. When it comes to proof of payment; roommates 1 and 2 never paid me anything for the few months they lived here, and roommate 3 only ever paid me in cash and I have no proof of their payment as I never wrote a receipt. The only documents I have are the physical bills sent to me and my bank account statements showing I paid utilities in full every month.

With no written agreement and no proof of their payment (or lack thereof), do I have a case against them in small claims court? Even if I don't have a case, how do I prevent this from happening again with future roommates?

This is in Wisconsin, USA. And if it matters; 2 roommates have been evicted for missing rent, and roommate #3 is close to eviction too. My landlord is taking legal action against at least 2 of them for the money they owe him. I don't know if that could help my case or not.

  • You don't need a written contract under Wisconsin law, but you do need an agreement. So to answer your question, we need to know what exactly you mean when you say there was an "expectation" you were going to split the utility bills. Did you discuss it explicitly, and so on? PS You probably can't piggy back on the landlord. – Just a guy Nov 26 '19 at 12:02
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do I have a case against them in small claims court?

Yes. Your description altogether indicates that there is --at least-- an implicit contract between you and the roommates. That implicit contract is palpable from the roommates' subsequent conduct, which includes --but is not necessarily limited to-- their excuses and promises.

Although there is no written contract between you and the roommates, evidence that you have paid utilities in full places on your roommates the burden of disproving the default (and common sense) presumption that bills would be split among all four roommates.

Your landlord can testify via an affidavit what he knows about that arrangement and/or what he informs each new roommate on the issue of how utilities are paid.

You might want to email your roommates a reminder [to pay you] in such a way that prompts them to reflect their excuses/promises/admissions in writing. The terms of their written response might evidence an oral agreement.

In the alternative, the roommates would have the burden to prove that they paid you, or that you promised to cover their utilities for free. The former scenario is precisely why a reasonable payer typically requires --or should require-- a receipt when making payments (as opposed to the payee when receiving them). Regardless, your description suggests that your roommates would be unable to prove either scenario.

Also the landlord could include in his affidavit that the roommates have defaulted on their rent payments as well. If the landlord refuses to produce an affidavit, you can always visit the court where eviction proceedings are taking place and obtain copy of the relevant records. With those records you would evidence the roommates' pattern of lack of payment.

Although obtaining copies from the court makes your landlord's affidavit somewhat unnecessary, it is in the landlord's best interest to cooperate with you because (1) it would be unreasonable for him to alienate himself from the only tenant who honors his lease, and (2) he might need your cooperation as witness at some point.

Even if the roommates were successful in proving that there was neither a verbal agreement nor an implicit contract but only "unfounded expectations" on your part, you could ask for a ruling in equity in case your claim of breach of contract fails.

In terms of mere "expectations", it is much more reasonable for you to expect them to pay their share than for three three individuals to presume an unrelated roommate will cover their utilities for free. The latter just departs from common sense and common practices.

how do I prevent this from happening again with future roommates?

Strictly speaking, it is impossible to absolutely prevent that situation from occurring again. However, you may take the following precautions to reduce your exposure.

Have your roommates sign an agreement that reflects each party's obligations and deadlines.

Your agreement should also state that it is each roommate's responsibility to keep his/her receipts --or akin evidence-- in case a dispute for non-payment arises. This would streamline the production of evidence if the matter ends up in court.

Consider whether or not asking each party for an aval or endorser is practicable. This provides some sort of "insurance" of roommates' default risk.

Lastly, do not wait for a party's debt to accumulate that much before taking legal action. The longer you wait, the unlikelier you are to recover that money because the party may go broke or simply disappear. Moreover, keep in mind that if a party's debt exceeds the maximum amount handled in Small Claims Court, your litigation will become more involved because it would have to be in a court of general jurisdiction (meaning a circuit or district court).

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  • Thank you very much for the in-depth answer! There was a verbal agreement between us and the landlord knows of this as well. My landlord seems to like me as I have been clean and always on time with my rent payment so I'm fairly sure he will back me up as much as he can. Since there is some hope for my case, I'll gather everything that I can and start the legal paper work for court. Would it be wise to consult with a local attorney if it's not too expensive? Not that I doubt you, just to be safe that's all lol – OctaneZSR Dec 6 '19 at 1:05
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    @OctaneZSR "Would it be wise to consult with a local attorney if it's not too expensive?" I would say no. For several reasons I personally distrust lawyers, so I hardly ever suggest others to waste their money on an attorney. Since your matter is rather simple, you would be better off (both short and long term) by gaining some acquaintance with litigation and contract law. The Restatement (Second) of Contracts comprises pretty much everything one needs to know about the latter, and it is frequently cited by US courts in contract disputes. – Iñaki Viggers Dec 6 '19 at 11:03
  • The Restatement (Second) of Contracts is available here, now that the law firm from the link in my previous comment removed that resource and posted some useless "overview of contract law" instead. – Iñaki Viggers Jan 3 at 14:56
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It’s very generous of you to provide your roommates with free electricity and internet

Because, unfortunately, that’s what you’ve done.

The law doesn’t care about “expectation” it cares about agreements, specifically, agreements that meet the threshold to be a contract.

Make a written one with your future roommates.

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  • While I respect your superior knowledgebase I disagree. I think that there is a fair chance of prevailing in the small claims court depending on the relationship between the parties - of-course if tenants are being evicted they are likely broke, so it could be drawing blood from a stone. – davidgo Nov 26 '19 at 10:40
  • @Dale M I agree it does not look good for our young friend, but without knowing more details about what exactly he did or didn't discuss with his roommates, how can you possibly know that he doesn't have a contract? – Just a guy Nov 26 '19 at 12:04
  • While I can't say I appreciate the way you worded your answer, I will say thank you for the suggestion on how to handle this situation with future roommates. There was a verbal agreement between myself and my roommates that the landlord knew about, but going forward I'll find out how to make a written agreement. – OctaneZSR Dec 6 '19 at 2:05

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