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What is a Judgment For “Possession Only”?

Sometimes the judgment in a detainer case is issued for “possession only”. Ordinarily in a detainer case, the landlord would get judgment for possession and a money judgment for back rent and damage to the property. With a judgment for “possession only”, the landlord gets a judgment for possession of the property, but does not get judgment for back rent or damages.

The judgment for “possession only” happens when the sheriff is unable to obtain “personal service” on the defendant. Due process ordinarily requires any legal process, including a detainer warrant, to be “personally served” on the defendant. That ordinarily means actually putting the warrant in the defendant’s hands. This requirement ensures that the defendant is given notice of the proceedings so that he may appear and defend himself. In a Tennessee detainer case, the law also permits service of process upon “any adult person found in possession of the premises.” However, it is sometimes difficult or impossible for the sheriff to find the delinquent tenant or any responsible person at the premises or to serve process on such person. For that reason, the Tennessee detainer statutes permit a detainer case to proceed without personal service under certain limited circumstances.

To proceed without personal service, the sheriff must first make three unsuccessful attempts at personal service in a ten-day period. Importantly, these three attempts must be documented on the face of the warrant. After the third attempt, the sheriff may post a copy of the warrant on the door of the property and mail a copy of the warrant to the defendant at his last known address (usually the property itself). Further, the trial date must be set at least ten days after the date of posting and mailing. (Ordinarily, the trial date may be set not less than six days from the date of service.) This method of service of process is considered to be sufficient for purposes of determining the right to possession of the property, and permits the landlord to get judgment for “possession only.” However, it is not considered sufficient for purposes of getting a money judgment for back rent or damage to the property. After a judgment for “possession only”, the landlord is permitted to file an additional action to collect the back rent and damages, but he will have to obtain personal service on the defendant before he can get a valid judgment.

The “possession only” procedure is beneficial for obvious reasons. The prime objective in a detainer case is usually obtaining possession of the property so that it can be re-rented. Obtaining a judgment for back rent and damages is usually only a secondary objective. The “possession only” procedure permits the prime objective to proceed on a “fast track,” while preserving the landlord’s right to pursue the secondary objective whenever the tenant can be found.  

The information contained on this site is intended to educate members of the public generally and is not intended to provide solutions to individual legal problems. Readers are cautioned not to attempt to solve individual problems on the basis of information contained herein and are strongly advised to seek competent legal counsel before relying on information on this site.

This site is maintained by Vowell & Associates, Attorneys at Law, 6718 Albunda Drive, Knoxville TN 37919, Tel. 865-292-0000, Fax 865-292-0002, email
KnoxLeaseLaw, and DETAINER are trademarks of Vowell & Associates. Copyright © 2000 Vowell & Associates. All rights reserved.
Last modified: Monday November 21, 2005.