Renewals, Utility Bills, and Garnishing Wages

Although this blog post will hit the online world on Thursday morning, much like the Dr. Rent Show, it is pre-recorded (so-to-speak).  I am writing this Wednesday morning with the hopes that the weatherman is right.  Before I can put the mower deck on the tractor (and I do have a couple of lawns that are getting kind of close to needing it), I need to take the broom off the front of it.  And, I can’t do that until I finish up some other projects that it has just been too cold to do.  I was going to do it Tuesday, but I didn’t feel like working out in the snow.  Can spring get here already?  Please?

Anywho, on tonight’s Dr. Rent Radio Show we have an interesting question that came up.  It was one of those questions that I needed to ask an attorney friend for some guidance, and when he looked up two different places for the answer, he came up with two different answers.  The question:  A husband and wife live together, but only the husband was named on the eviction action.  When the sheriff serves the writ, does he remove both the husband and the wife, or just the husband?  Tune in… the answer may surprise you.

After that question, instead of one main topic, we will have two smaller topics.  First, we will talk about some corporate structures.  What are the pro’s and con’s of holding rental property individually (as a sole proprietor), in a partnership, in a corporation (subchapter S and subchapter C), or a Limited Liability Company (LLC)?  The other main topic we will talk about is pet policies.  If you are going to allow pets, what are the pro’s and con’s of a monthly pet rent versus an additional pet security deposit versus a non-refundable one-time pet fee?

Last week, we had a show full of just questions.  Of course, those are my favorite kind of shows to do, so feel free to send your questions to me at

InWisconsin, most of the move outs and move ins happen when there is not snow on the ground.  If a rental unit comes vacant in November, odds are more likely than not that it will still be vacant in March.  For this reason, many landlords put clauses in their leases that limit a tenant’s ability to move out during the winter months.  A landlord noticed that their lease with their tenant ends in November, and they want to tell them they have to stay through March.  How do they do that?  Well… they don’t.  If the landlord didn’t want the lease ending in November, this should have been considered when entering into the lease.  Once that contract is written and executed, both parties must live with the terms.  The lease ends when the lease ends.  They can ask the tenant to extend the agreement, but the tenant has no obligation to do so.

In a different situation, a landlord has figured out less than 6 months into a 1 year lease that they are having a personality clash with the tenant.  The tenants have not actually breached the lease, they just don’t get along with them.  Is that a good enough reason to not renew the lease when it ends?  Yes.  The landlord does not need a reason to not offer a renewal and let the lease just end.  (However, if the reason for not renewing is discriminatory based on an established protected class, or in retaliation for the tenant exercising one of their rights, like calling a housing inspector – there could be problems.)  As a follow up, how much notice do you need to give the tenant that you are not renewing?  That depends on your lease.  If the lease dictates a certain amount of notice that the tenant must give the landlord, that same amount of notice is needed the other way around.  I normally like giving as little notice as possible, because some tenants don’t take this news very well.  Could the landlord tell them six months in advance?  Sure, there is not a problem with that legally.  But again, will this information cause additional issues on what is already a touchy relationship between the landlord and tenant?

As a follow up, can the landlord put up a For Rent sign in the yard once notice has been given to the tenant?  Even if the tenant is still living there?  Unless the lease forbids it, yes.  There is no problem with that.  Wisconsin Landlord-Tenant law even allows for the landlord to enter the unit to show it to prospective renters/buyers provided they give the current tenant at least 12 hours advance notice and the showing is done during “reasonable” times of the day.

On a completely different topic, a landlord had a question about tenant utility bills.  The tenant is behind in rent and is being evicted.  They are also behind in utilities and most of them have been turned off.  Is the landlord going to get stuck paying the tenant’s past due utility bills?  If the utility is government-owned, most likely yes as they have the ability to assess unpaid bills against property taxes.  This is most common with water/sewer bills as those utilities are almost always government-owned.  However, some areas even have electric utilities that are government owned.  If it is not a government owned utility (for example, Wisconsin Public Service who handles the electricity and natural gas for theWausauarea), then this bill does stay with the tenant, assuming the utility was changed into the tenant’s name.  Some landlords will leave the electric or natural gas bill in their name, but just have the bill sent to the tenant’s address.  Because the landlord’s name is on the bill, they will be on the hook for paying it.  But if a tenant has a $1,000 unpaid WPS bill from their name and the utility is turned off, the landlord will not have to pay this past due balance to turn it back on into the landlord’s name.

An interesting question came in from a tenant that has to do with utilities.  The tenant wanted the landlord to fix something, and instead of the landlord just saying NO… the landlord told the tenant to look up in the lease who is responsible.  Big mistake.  The tenant pulled out their lease and in reviewing it, noticed that the landlord had (we assume accidentally) marked the boxes that stated the landlord was responsible for the utilities.  Yet, for the term of the lease (nearly a year), the tenant had been paying the utilities.  Can the tenant now use the lease and ask the landlord to reimburse them for the utility bills that they have been paying that the landlord should have paid per the contract.  My opinion was yes… but they were probably going to need legal help to do this, so I put them in contact with an attorney friend of mine.

A landlord had a question about wage garnishment.  A husband and wife owe a large amount of money, the wife is the one who has a job.  Can the landlord garnish the wife for the full amount?  Or, can they only collect half from each party?  Unless the lease states differently, co-tenants on leases are jointly and severally liable.  That means that the landlord has the right to come after everyone on the lease, or can choose to just go after one party for the full amount.  In order to garnish wages, that money that is owed has to go through the court system and become a judgment.  Also, whether or not you will be able to garnish the wife’s wages will depend on if they have any other garnishments already coming out of their pay, if garnishing them will put them below certain poverty guidelines, or if they qualify for certain public assistance programs.  Assuming the money owed is a court judgment, and it is a good paying job where they don’t qualify for certain types of public assistance and garnishing 25% of their take home won’t put them into poverty (as defined by the courts), then yes.. there would be no problem collecting the entire amount owed from just one party on the lease.

Finally, the final question I had was from a landlord who had a tenant who wanted to break their lease.  The tenant did find a replacement tenant who was willing to take over the remaining lease.  The landlord’s question was, if the landlord approved in writing assigning lease rights to the new tenant, does the landlord have to take the old tenant off of the lease.  I know this sounds unfair, but no.  Personally, if the replacement tenant is as good or better than the tenant who wants off, I don’t have a problem doing this.  But I have no legal obligation to do this.

As always, it is amazing just how much good information that I can get in a one hour radio show.  The Dr. Rent Radio Show is heard on WNRB-LP, 93.3 FM in the greater Wausauarea on Thursdays, from 5 to 6 PM.  It can also be heard online anywhere in the world by clicking on the “Hmong Radio” link on the top-left webpage at



About drrent

Wausau, Wisconsin Landlord, past president of the Wisconsin Apartment Association, Host of the Dr Rent Radio Show on WNRB-LP, 93.3 FM, Wausau, WI
This entry was posted in Questions, Renewal, Showings, Signs, Small Claims, Water Bills, WNRB and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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