Many landlords are unclear about whether they have the right to ask applicants about their marital status.
Most landlords are familiar with the Federal Fair Housing Acts that prohibit discrimination against certain protected classes. However, you may not be clear on whether questions about a prospective tenant’s marital status are allowed or not. Learn what information about marital status you can legally gather from an applicant before your next rental application process.
Why Marital Status?
Marital status is a big deal to some landlords due to a range of personal beliefs. For example, a landlord may not wish to rent to an unmarried heterosexual couple because he mistakenly believes that unmarried couples are less financially stable.
Another landlord may not want to rent to an unmarried couple due to her religious beliefs. Still another landlord may avoid renting to divorced single mothers with children due to certain stereotypes he believes.
In most states, landlords are within their rights to deny rental applications based on these criteria. In other states, such decisions would be illegal. It’s important to understand the different legal issues concerning tenants and marital status on the federal, state and local levels.
Federal Laws on Marital Status
The Federal Fair Housing Act considers a person’s familial status a protected class.
The legal definition of familial status centers solely on pregnancy and having children—it does not include marital status. In other words, landlords cannot deny an application based on whether the prospective tenant is pregnant or has children.
The federal law does not prohibit landlords from denying an application based on whether a prospective tenant is unmarried, married or divorced.
State Laws on Marital Status
Even though the Federal Fair Housing Act doesn’t cover an applicant’s marital status, many states have laws that include additional protected classes that go beyond the federal classes. Some of these additional protected classes may include marital status, source of income or sexual orientation.
As of 2013, the states that include marital status as one of the protected classes for housing discrimination are:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Dakota
Municipal Laws on Marital Status
Local municipalities have the authority to pass laws that provide even greater protection for certain classes than are covered by federal and state law.
For example, Palm Beach County in Florida is one place that prohibits housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, age, and marital status, even though the state has no such protective laws.
Know the Law in Your Area
As a landlord, you must educate yourself on the fair housing laws and ordinances where your rental properties are located, especially when it comes to a prospective tenant’s marital status. Ultimately, your tenant screening process should focus on more important factors, such as whether the person is responsible, trustworthy and has a history of paying rent on time, every time.