Posts Tagged Late Fees

LATE FEES – PART 1: WHAT AMOUNT CAN YOU CHARGE?

Many of my clients ask me what amount they should charge a tenant who is late in paying rent. Many also wonder if there is a maximum amount beyond which they would not be allowed to charge as a late fee.

The only legal guidance we have as to what amount is acceptable as a late fee is the case of Three & One Co. v. Geilfuss, 178 Wis.2d 400, 504 N.W. 2d 393 (Ct. App. 1993). This 1993 Court of Appeal decision is not even specifically about the issue of late fees but rather addresses the issue of “waste” (when a tenant intentionally damages the rental property) and what amount of damages a landlord may recover against a tenant that commits waste on the landlord’s property. Nonetheless the Court in Geilfuss does state in its opinion that the late fee of $50 per month charged by the landlord was properly assessed against the tenant. Thus, we as landlords know that at least the Wisconsin Court of Appeals has upheld a late fee of $50 per month.

There is no other guidance in Wisconsin law as to the amount of late fee that is acceptable. No Wisconsin Statute addresses the issue nor does any administrative rule in Chapter ATCP 134 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code.

As such, a landlord should be able to charge a late fee of any amount as long as it is reasonable. Legally, a landlord should also be allowed to charge a daily late fee as well if they so choose. For those of you who choose to charge a daily late fee you should be aware the Model Lease for Subsidized Programs (which is drafted by HUD) specifically allow a landlord renting subsidized property to charge a late fee of $5 on the 6th day of the month and to charge $1 per day late fee each day thereafter for that month until the rent is paid.

On a practical level however – at least in Milwaukee County – there are some restrictions to the amount of the late fee that a landlord may charge. Milwaukee County has an unwritten rule that it does not allow daily late fees to be charged. I have had both court commissioners and judges in Milwaukee County eviction court toss out daily late fees that I have tried to obtain for my clients. The reason that I was provided is that daily late fees are “not fair.”

I have even had a past court commissioner in Milwaukee County (several years ago) tell me that he would not allow my client to collect a monthly late fee of $50 as he thought that was “unconscionable.” When I provided the commissioner with a copy of the Geilfuss case mentioned above where the Court of Appeals held that a $50 late fee was appropriate, the commissioner relented.

I have handled evictions and the associated damages claims in Dane County, Waukesha County, Kenosha County, Racine County, Aizoaceae County, Washington County, and a county or two county way up north that I can no longer recall – in all of these counties I have never had the court prevent me from obtaining a late fee for my client, regardless of the amount, as long as the late fee was clearly specified in the rental agreement as is required in the Wisconsin Administrative Code, ACP 134.09(8).

So as the law currently stands you should be able to charge any amount for a late fee that you wish, including daily late fees, if you are so inclined. However if you want to have actual legal support for the amount of the late fee you are charging then you may want to cap your late fees at $50 per month and carry a copy of the Geilfuss decision with you when you go to small claims court at least in Milwaukee County).

Please be aware however that individual municipalities can create ordinances regarding late fees that might be more restrictive than the state law.  For example the City of Madison’s local ordinances which you can review here prevent a landlord from charging a late fee that is more than 5% of the month rent.

A note of caution for Milwaukee County landlords – do not place the late fee amount in your 5 day notice or you might have your eviction case dismissed. See my prior post on this topic here.

Please share with me your experience with what amount of late fees you charge your tenants and if you have had any problems with the courts doing so.

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LATE FEES – PART 2: ATCP 134 REQUIREMENTS

Late fees are a necessary evil for landlords aw we often need some type of “hammer” to hold over the heads of tenants who pay rent late. With this post I want to provide you with some additional information on the requirements that must be met with regard to late fees as specified in ATCP 134 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code.

A Bit of History:

In the past – prior to ATCP 134 and when the administrative rules pertaining to residential rental housing were called Ag 134 — late fees were not allowed. Because of this creative landlords came up with the idea of offering discounts for the prompt payment of rent. For example, if the tenant pays rent by the 1st of the month the rent will be discounted to $650, however if rent is not received by the 1st of the month then the rental amount will remain at the regular rate of $700. By doing this landlords still were able to obtain a form of late fee without calling it a late fee.

I still see this “discount rent” option on a few of my client’s rental agreements but it has become rare as there is no need to disguise a late fee anymore since late fees are no longer prohibited.

ATCP 134.09(8) Rules Regarding Late Fees:

While late fees are no longer illegal, there are some rules that have been imposed regarding how and when late fees can be used. In the revised Ag Rules (now referred to as ATCP 134) the rules regarding late fees are as follows:

1.  You cannot charge a late fee or late penalty unless it is specifically stated in the rental agreement.

2.  You may not charge a late fee for the non-payment of a late fee.

3.  Before charging a late fee you must apply all rent prepayments received to offset the amount of rent owed by the tenant.

The first two rules are pretty straightforward. However the third rule is a bit confusing. In essence, the third rule is basically saying that you cannot apply a tenant’s rent payment to a past owed late fee so that the tenant would now be considered late in paying the current month’s rent thus allowing you to charge an additional late fee.

Here is an example: Joe Tenant fails to pay you rent for the month of June in the amount of $500. After the 6th of the month you charge Joe a $50 late fee. On or about June 10th Joe pays his rent of $500 for the month of June but fails to pay the $50 late fee. So while Joe has now paid June’s rent in full he still owes you a $50 late fee. When July 1st comes around Joe promptly pays you his July rent of $500. You are not allowed to take Joe’s July rent payment of $500 and apply $50 of that payment to the outstanding $50 late fee for June. This is not allowed because by doing so your actions would now make Joe responsible for paying a late fee for July as well because he would have only paid you $450. You cannot do this.

In the example above you would need to apply the $500 July rent payment to July’s rent and then continue to keep the $50 late fee from June “on the books” and either collect it from Joe in the future or at the end of Joe’s rental term or tenancy deduct the June $50 late fee from Joe’s security deposit (assuming your nonstandard rental provisions allow you to do so).

While it may be tempting to ignore this administrative rule you must remember that by ignoring the rule you will be in violation of ATCP 134 which would allow Joe Tenant, under §100.20(5) Wis Stats., to recover twice the amount of the loss (in this case $100) plus his costs in filing the lawsuit and his attorney’s fees (and trust me these will be more than the $100 ; )

The three rules mentioned above are administrative rules and apply statewide. You must also be aware that many municipalities have created additional rules regarding late fees. An example would be the City of Madison which specifies that a late fee cannot exceed more than 5% of the rent amount. So be sure and check the local administrative ordinances where you own your rental property.

If you have not already done so, please read Part 1 of my post on the issue of late fees here.

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