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

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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

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 4 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.


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