Tenants who have not paid the rent on time cannot be evicted right away. Landlords must always give them a termination notice, which gives them a specified amount of time in which to leave on their own and thus avoid an eviction lawsuit. And, depending on state law, some tenants may be entitled to a period of time to pay the rent or move out, which gives them a chance to save their tenancy.
Many states give tenants a specified amount of time to pay the rent (or move out). If the tenant pays within the specified time, he gets to stay. In this situation, the landlord gives the tenant a "pay or quit" notice.
Some states impose grace periods, making landlords wait a specified number of days before delivering a pay or quit notice. For example, in Maine, rent isn't considered late until 15 days after the date it's due (Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 14, § 6028). Few states are that generous. More typical is Connecticut, whose grace period is nine days (Ct. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 47a-15a), and Tennessee, which allows for five days (Tenn. Gen. Code Ann. § 66-28-201(d)).
The majority of states, however, do not require landlords to wait a specified number of days before sending a termination notice. In these states, the landlord may send a notice the day after rent is due but unpaid.
In some situations, tenants who are late with the rent can be told to leave, period, with no chance to pay the late rent and save their tenancy. These notices are known as "unconditional quit" notices. If the state has a grace period, the landlord must wait this out, and a tenant who pays the rent within that grace period will save her tenancy. But as soon as the grace period ends, the tenant loses the ability to pay and stay.
In all situations, when tenants fail to act in time to either pay and save their tenancy, or not pay and move out, or move out as directed (with unconditional quit notices), the landlord can take the next step. Contrary to some tenants' fears and landlords' beliefs, this next step cannot be a lock-out, the removal of tenants' belongings, or utility shut-offs. These are rouge "self-help" evictions, illegal in the vast majority of states.
Lern more about the Tenant Eviction Process.
The next step for landlords is to file a lawsuit in court, known as an eviction or unlawful detainer. The tenant must be given, or served, the court papers, and must answer the lawsuit with a written response. If the tenant doesn't answer or doesn't show up at the hearing, the landlord will win. Of course, if the tenant disputes the grounds for the termination and eviction, the tenant can defend himself at trial.
If the landlord wins, the court issues an order for the tenant to leave the property by a certain date, often within a very few days. A law enforcement officer will come to the property and physically remove the tenant and his belongings if the tenant hasn't already moved out by the eviction date.
If the tenant wins, he may be awarded not only the right to continue his tenancy, but other damages (and possibly attorney fees and court costs).
Learn about other Landlord and Tenant Laws.