California Rules for Terminating a Tenancy for Nonpayment of Rent

The most common reason landlords terminate a tenancy is for nonpayment of rent. In California, if a tenant does not pay the rent before the end of the day it's due, a landlord can immediately send a termination notice (unless the lease or rental agreement provides for a grace period). The termination notice, called a Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit, gives the tenant three days to pay rent or move out. This article explains the basic rules and procedures for preparing and serving these three-day notices.For specific details and forms, see Nolo's California Landlord's Law Book: Evictions.

Pay Attention to the Details

California rules are very detailed as to what must be included in the notice and when and how you serve it on the tenant. If you haven't followed the rules, and the tenant doesn't pay or move within the specified three days, you'll have to file an eviction lawsuit (also called an unlawful detainer). But the tenant may have a valid reason to contest or at least delay court proceedings based on your mistakes. If you lose the eviction lawsuit because you made a mistake in preparing or serving a three-day notice, you may even end up responsible for paying the tenant's court costs and attorney fees (in addition to your own), and you will need to start all over again with a correct three-day notice.

See Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § §1161 and 1162 for the specific California rules on preparing and serving a Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit (typically referred to as a three-day notice) for details. If you own rental property in one of the 17 California cities with some form of rent control, be sure to see your local ordinance for rules affecting late rent and three-day notices.

When Is Rent Due?

Rent is due on the date your lease or rental agreement says it's due, typically on the first of the month. If that day falls on a weekend or holiday, the rent is still due that day (unless your lease says otherwise). Many people are surprised to learn this, because in other situations, buyers are given an extra day (the next business day) to comply. (Ca. Civil Code § § 7 & 11; Ca. Code of Civ. Pro. § 12a.) But California courts have ruled that these laws don't extend to rent deadlines. (Gans v. Smull, 111 Cal. App. 4th 985 (2003).)

In order to avoid confusion like this, many leases sensibly specify that when the rent due date falls on a weekend or holiday, it will be due on the next business day. Otherwise, landlords are within their rights to receive payment on the weekend or holiday.

Preparing a Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit

The three-day notice in California must be in writing and must include all of the following information:

  • the full names of all the tenants listed on the lease or rental agreement
  • the address of the rental unit
  • the correct amount of past due rent (do not include late charges, bounced-check fees, or other money the tenant owes, such as utility charges—you can recover these in an unlawful detainer lawsuit or deduct the amounts from the security deposit)
  • the dates for which rent is due
  • a demand that the tenant(s) pay the stated amount of rent within three days or move
  • a statement (or ultimatum) that you will pursue legal action if the tenant(s) do not pay the entire rent within three days or move , and
  • information as to whom, where, and how the tenant(s) must pay the rent.

You or another person you authorize (such as a manager) must sign the notice (the date is not legally required, but it's a good idea to provide it).

You can prepare your own Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit (the California Courts Self-Help Law Center ( has useful information on doing so), use the form in Nolo's California Landlord's Law Book Evictions, or hire an attorney to prepare the notice.

When and How to Serve a Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit

California landlords can give tenants a three-day notice any day after the rent is due, but not on the day it is due. Unless your lease or rental agreement provides a grace period before rent is officially considered late, you can send a Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit when the tenant is even one day late with the rent.

Who should serve (and receive) the notice. You, or anyone at least 18 years old, can legally serve the three-day notice to the tenant(s)—ideally, separate copies to each person named on the three-day notice.

How to serve the three-day notice. There are three legal methods of serving a three-day notice in California, including personal service, substituted service on another person (followed by mailing a second copy to the tenant), and posting-and-mailing service. California law is very strict on how the three-day notice may be served on the tenant. It is not enough that you mail the notice or simply post it on the door.

Documenting how you served the notice. At the bottom of your Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit, you should fill out details on whom you served, the type of service, and the date of service (this is called "proof of service").

How Much Time the Tenant Has to Pay Rent or Leave

The tenant must either pay (or move out) within three days after you properly serve the notice. When calculating the three days, do not count the day on which you serve the notice as the first day. For example, if rent is due on Monday and you serve the notice on Tuesday, the tenant has until the end of the third full day (Friday) to pay or move.

Suppose one of the three days is on a weekend or legal holiday? Will the tenant get to "skip" that day, thereby getting extra time? The answer is no. As with determining when rent is due, holidays and weekends have no effect on your calculations (unless your lease says otherwise). For example, if rent is due on Tuesday and you serve the notice on Wednesday, the tenant has until the end of the day on Saturday to pay or move, even though Thursday is Thanksgiving and Saturday is on a weekend.

If the Tenant Pays Rent Within the Three Days

If the tenant pays the whole rent within three days after you properly served the notice, you have cancelled the termination notice and the tenant can legally stay. If you accept a partial rent payment, you've effectively cancelled the three-day notice. But you can still go ahead with your attempts to get the tenant out, by simultaneously accepting the partial payment and giving the tenant a new three-day notice demanding that the tenant pay the balance or leave.

If the Tenant Leaves, But Does Not Pay Up

If the tenant doesn't pay the rent but moves out within the three days, you may use the tenant's security deposit (if any) to cover the unpaid rent or sue the tenant in small claims court for the unpaid rent.

If the Tenant Does Not Pay Up or Leave

When the deadline in the Three Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit passes, the tenancy is terminated. You have a legal right to the rental property which you can enforce by bringing an unlawful detainer lawsuit. In California, you must file and win an unlawful detainer lawsuit before the sheriff or marshal can physically evict a tenant who refuses to leave after losing the lawsuit. The whole process may take weeks or months, depending on whether the tenant contests the eviction in court.

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