background check on the tenant's spouse

Updated December 2021

Background checks are often confusing for tenants, and even landlords can find it difficult to understand exactly what is and is not included in this check. Specifically, a very common question we hear at RentPrep is: should landlords do a background check on a prospective tenant’s spouse?

Sometimes, you’ll receive a rental application that only gives details for the primary applicant, even though they are married or plan to move into the unit with their partner. What do you do in this situation? Should you ask for more information so you can run multiple background checks, or is the original information provided enough?

Today, learn more about why it is essential to run a thorough check on every adult tenant and why they should all be included on the lease as well. If you skip these steps, you could end up with a very expensive taste of regret.

A Table Of Contents On Spouse Background Checks

Some individuals will feel that having just one person complete the application and background check is enough to rent a property, even when more than one person will be living there. As a landlord, however, you know this is too risky to allow. Today, learn more about why it’s a significant risk and how to more effectively work with applicants to do proper screening.

Why Do Landlords Screen Every Tenant?

Why Do Landlords Screen Every Tenant?

New landlords and those curious about the renting process might not immediately understand why background checks are so necessary. If they screen the principal applicant, why does it matter if the other individuals who will be living there are screened as well?

There have been cases where a landlord decided to run a background report on just the main applicant for an apartment, and then they came back to us saying something just didn’t feel right.

They then screened the spouse/co-applicant and found evictions, judgments, criminal records, etc.

Bad Tenant Tactics

Just as there are many great tenants out there who only provide truthful information on their rental applications, there are also prospective tenants who will try to hide their history in order to rent a new apartment.

When applying for an apartment, these applicants know what will show up if a landlord runs a background check on them.

In the case of spouses, they will try to keep records limited to just one person. They will list, for example, only the husband on a lease or open up all of their credit cards under the husband’s name.

They do this so the prior eviction or judgments won’t affect both spouses’ credit. Then, when they come to you looking for a place to live, they apply under the wife’s name only. When you order the background screening report, it will seem like the couple passes with flying colors.

No tenant judgments, evictions, or liens will appear, even though the couple is actually swimming in a sea of debt all under just the husband’s name.

In other cases, one of the applicants has a criminal record they are trying to keep hidden from you, the landlord. They know their chances of getting the apartment with their record and want you only to run one report on the main applicant, who does not have a criminal record.

Landlords should never assume that a prospective tenant has a bad credit record or eviction history. Still, they also should not assume that every adult tenant is good just because one passes a background check.

Spouse Background Check: Who Should You Screen?

When receiving a rental application, who should you screen?

The best and only way to handle tenant screening is to screen every adult who will be living at the property. It doesn’t matter if the adults are related, married, or friends. Anyone who will be living in the unit will ultimately be one of your tenants, and you should screen them all.

Co-applicants, spouses, and every other adult should be included not only in your background checks, but also in the lease agreement. Putting the responsibility for everyone occupying the property on only one tenant should not be your standard practice or permitted without writing up a special lease agreement for unique situations.

Should Landlords Order A Background Check On The Tenant’s Spouse In Every Situation?

Spouse Background Check: Who Should You Screen?

The determining factor for whether or not you should order a background check on your tenant’s spouse is not their marital status. Instead, you should be focused on whether they are living together. If you are only renting to one individual and their spouse will be living elsewhere, there is no reason for you to run a background check on the tenant’s spouse.

If you find out later that the tenant is allowing their spouse to live there off-record, you can address the matter through occupancy limits and rules laid out in your lease agreement. Make sure your lease agreement includes these terms to prevent any loopholes from being exploited.

Regardless, you can only order background checks on individuals who will be living in the unit.

Your Tenant Screening Partner Matters

As you can see, it is imperative to make sure that your background check information is accurate and verifiable when you need to run background checks on two or more people.

Enter RentPrep. Through our unique and affordable tenant screening services, you can quickly get background checks on every prospective tenant. The information revealed through the check will help you make the best decision for your property as you move forward with renting out your next unit.

What are you waiting for? Learn more about RentPrep’s tenant screening services today.

FAQs: Background Check Details

When running a background check on a tenant, landlords often have a plethora of questions. Here are a select few of the most popular.

Can a landlord ask about marital status?

While the Federal Fair Housing Act doesn’t specifically mention marital status, many HUD-based programs include protections for marital status as a protected class. Additionally, many states and cities consider it a protected class. Landlords cannot ask about protected classes, nor can they deny a tenant’s application due to these classes.

The Federal Fair Housing Act does include familial status as a protected class, but familial status only references whether or not an individual has or will have children. It does not apply to marital status.

Technically, this all means that landlords in some states may be permitted to ask about marital status. However, we recommend that landlords avoid asking this question as it is usually not a helpful screening parameter. Additionally, it is often restricted and can lead to awkward conversations with your tenants.

If you believe that asking about marital status is beneficial to your screening process, make sure that you review local and state laws to ensure that marital status is not a protected class. If it is not a protected class, you are permitted to ask prospective tenants whether or not they are married.

Do background checks show spouses?

A tenant background check only shows information about the specific individual based on their SSN and rental history. While some of this data might include joint accounts such as loans, it does not specifically outline details about spouses. It only covers background check information for the individual in question.

Ultimately, however, the exact information that shows up on a background check will depend on the type of background check. Some background checks pull all public records, and this could include a marriage license application. Other background checks will pull up information such as who is listed as a co-signer for credit applications, which could show spousal details.

As a landlord, you should not rely on a credit check to tell you whether or not a tenant is married. If a spouse shows up within their records but is not included on the application, it might be a good idea to ensure that the spouse is not planning to live in your unit. If they are, you want to make sure that you also complete a background check on them.

Do background checks show family members?

Tenants related to individuals with criminal backgrounds, such as someone who is a registered sex offender, might worry  that this will affect their own background check.

If prospective tenants come to you with this concern, it can be helpful to let them know what will and will not show up on their records. Nothing about family members who are not your spouse will show up on your background check for most people.

There are, of course, exceptions. If you took out a loan with the family member in question or were somehow involved in their criminal activity, certain financial or public records could include those family members.

Additionally, you may want to let your tenant know they can request a copy of the credit report that you receive if you deny their application. You should let all denied tenants know about this as well as why you denied their application. This may ease the tenant’s worries that their family members are affecting their applications and help them get a better idea of what is causing them to be denied.

Does my husband’s criminal record affect me?

Tenants married to someone with a criminal history have very specific concerns regarding renting and background checks. A criminal background can make it very difficult to find jobs or homes to rent, making life complicated.

Even if a tenant is living alone, there is a chance that their spouse’s criminal record will show up through their background check. Again, however, this is dependent on the specific type of background check that is used.

Some background checks, for example, include references and interviews with specific individuals included in the application. These individuals may mention their criminal background.

What a landlord can do with that information, however, varies. If a tenant has no criminal background and their spouse with a criminal history will not be living there, the data cannot affect your rental decision. However, suppose the spouse will be staying there. In that case, some states allow you to deny their application if the criminal history proves a real and current risk to other individuals in the building or neighborhood.

Applicants must be upfront about their spouse’s criminal history to prevent any confusion or misunderstandings. This will allow you to make the decision that makes sense based on the facts of the situation.

What can a landlord ask for on a rental application?

There are several questions that most landlords ask on rental applications. Collecting the following information is the standard minimum for modern rental applications:

  • Basic identifying information (name, birthday, address, email, phone number, etc.)
  • Employment history and income
  • Past two years of rental history and addresses
  • References (employers, landlords, etc.)
  • Pet information (number, size, breed, etc.)
  • Eviction and bankruptcy information
  • Relevant crime information (i.e., has the tenant ever committed burglary or a similar crime that could indicate additional risk)
  • Number of tenants that will occupy the unit
  • Whether or not any of those individuals smoke

These are not all of the questions that landlords can ask of potential tenants. Landlords can also include questions such as whether or not the prospective tenant is familiar with the leasing process. These types of questions enable the landlord to provide additional support as needed, not to make a decision about the tenant’s application.

As you put together your rental application, make sure that all of your questions are legal to ask prospective tenants. You cannot ask questions about any protected class, as these cannot be used to decide on a tenant’s application. Review local, state, and federal regulations on this matter to ensure you do not violate any guidelines.

What causes a red flag on a background check?

When reviewing a tenant background check, there are some things that might give landlords pause. Being familiar with risk factors when reviewing background checks is key for successful landlords.

The biggest red flag landlords often come across is incorrect information. Tenants who lie about their legal name, birthdate, credit score, or other key information are not likely to be approved by a landlord. Lying on an application even though a background check will be run shows that the tenant is trying to hide something, and that’s not a great start to a landlord-tenant relationship.

Additionally, landlords may have specific criteria which indicate a warning sign to them. A credit score under 700, for example, might be something you use to deny an application. You may also notice a history of late payments on an applicant’s credit history, which would be another good reason to deny an application.

Specific red flags vary from landlord to landlord, but you will develop your own list of warning signs to look out for as you gain more experience as a landlord.

Resident Screening: Partners, Spouses, And More!

You can never be too careful, and running a background report on all potential tenants is a way to protect yourself. Our FCRA Screener Lauren says: You want to be confident in who you rent to, and you want to know that the rent will be paid and that you are renting to trustworthy people. Run a background check on every applicant — in the end, it will save you time and money.

This means that you should run a background check on anyone who will be considered your tenant. This includes partners, spouses, roommates, and friends. The relationship between the individuals is less important than their rental status. If they will be living in your rental unit and part of the lease, you should run a background check before continuing the process.

Don’t be caught unaware of someone’s difficult financial history simply because you didn’t check. You can check how reliable a tenant may or may not be. Utilize the best tools to do background checks as often as needed at RentPrep.