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Distress means to seize another’s personal property for the satisfaction of a demand. 

In general, the main reasons for which distress may be allowed include: (1) Arrears of rent; (2) Failure to pay taxes and certain fines; (3) Failure to pay for goods and services received.

Cases such as this one from Kentucky, explain that “the fundamental element of distress is taking of another's personal property out of his possession either for holding or for sale in order to obtain satisfaction of a past due rent claim.”

In the context of a landlordtenant relationship, cases such as this one from New Jersey, explain that the process of distress, sometimes called distraint, is a “common law right of a landlord to seize a tenant's goods and chattels in a nonjudicial proceeding to satisfy an arrears of rent.”

In the past, distress was often carried out without legal process; but now in most U.S. states distress (or distraint law) is regulated by statute. For Example, N.J.S.A. 2A:33-1 through 2A:33-23 governs distress law in New Jersey.

See also: Emotional Distress

[Last updated in July of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]