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How to Verify an ESA Letter: A Guide for Landlords

As a landlord, your tenants rely on you to treat them fairly and within their rights according to the Fair Housing Act. This including providing accommodations to individuals with disabilities. Some disabilities are easily recognized on the surface. However, some disabilities, such as mental or emotional conditions, are invisible to the naked eye. That’s why there are other ways to verify an individual’s disability, such as an ESA letter.

 

Individuals with a mental or emotional condition and have been prescribed an emotional support animal as part of their treatment will have an ESA letter. For landlords, this ESA letter is all the information you need to accommodate a person’s request to have their animal live with them.

 

Under the Fair Housing Act, an emotional support animal cannot be subjected to pet fees or deposits, nor are they subject to breed or species restrictions. While you may collect a pet deposit or charge additional fees for regular pets, these do not apply to an emotional support animal.

 

It is every landlord’s right to request an ESA letter as proof of a tenant’s disability. however, it is also every landlord’s responsibility to ensure they do not violate the rights of an individual by asking certain questions or refusing to make a reasonable accommodation.

 

To ensure you act in accordance with the law, it is important that you understand how to verify an ESA letter the appropriate way. Here’s what you need to know.

Why Landlords Should Verify a Tenant’s ESA Letter

Picture this: a tenant applies for housing at the complex you own or manage. They say they have an emotional support animal that will be living with them. They are able to provide you with an ESA letter to prove that their companion isn’t a pet.

 

As a landlord, you may readily believe the tenant about their condition and emotional support animal. After all, it is within the tenant’s right to have an ESA live with them, and you don’t want to create any legal friction.

 

But what if their ESA letter is more than a year old or was issued from a licensed provider in another state? How can you be sure that their letter is valid? Or what if their letter is actually a forgery? Would you be able to tell a difference?

 

The implications of a fake ESA letter are far reaching. For starters, emotional support animals aren’t limited to certain breeds or species like service animals. There have been documented cases of people having emotional support snakes, chickens, turkeys, and even kangaroos. Some tenants may also have a dog breed that could pose a safety risk to others. Typically, the ESA letter will NOT share the type, size, or weight of the animal. ESA letters are usually not specific to any one kind of animal, which allows a lot of room for interpretation.

 

This means that landlords who want to do right by their disabled tenants may grant the tenant’s accommodation without thinking about the type of animal they are bringing into the rental property. The animal may pose a significant risk to the property, or worse, to other tenants.

 

There’s also the chance that a person’s ESA letter might not be legitimate. The only way for tenants to receive an ESA letter is by connecting with a licensed mental health professional. Their healthcare provider will recommend an emotional support animal as part of a broader treatment strategy, and will thus issue an ESA letter in the patient’s name.

 

With the rise in telehealth options, it’s becoming more common for patients to take an online-first approach to this process. Individuals can use online services like Therapy Pet to connect with a mental health provider who is licensed in their state of residency. They can conduct their therapy or counseling sessions online and the provider can make a remote assessment as to whether an emotional support animal makes sense for the patient.

 

Overall, this is a more efficient and convenient process for the patient. However, the downside for landlords is that the number of online ESA service providers is growing faster than government regulation. This has led to a number of entrepreneurial “gray market” companies cropping up with promises of ESA letters in exchange for a fee.

 

At Therapy Pet, we know this is not how ESA letters work. The only way to obtain a valid letter is through your mental health provider. And yet that hasn’t stopped unscrupulous companies from preying on some of the most vulnerable and needy individuals who want a real solution for their mental health condition.

 

It’s also attracted the attention of regular pet owners who think they can skirt the rules regarding pet fees and travel restrictions if they can pass off their fur baby as an emotional support animal.

 

The reality is that emotional support animals are not for everyone. Not even everyone with a mental health condition will qualify for an emotional support animal. This is why a healthcare provider must assess each patient and make a determination.

 

When landlords don’t have all of the information they need to make a fair judgment, it can affect the disabled tenant, the other tenants, and the housing complex’s reputation.

How Landlords Can Legally Verify an ESA Letter

When a tenant asks you to accommodate their emotional support animal, how can landlords go about verifying the request’s validity without violating the individual’s rights?

 

There are a few things you can do to investigate.

Request a Copy of the Letter

Landlords are allowed to request documentation from tenants and prospective tenants. In this case, an ESA letter is all you need to provide the accommodation.

 

Individuals asking for emotional support animal accommodations should have an ESA letter written for them by an authorized healthcare professional. The letter should be dated within one year of the time of the request, and the provider should be licensed in the state of the apartment, rental home, or housing complex.

 

Sometimes, tenants may furnish you with a certificate of registration, badges, identification cards, or other accessories. But these are not sufficient proof of a disability, as these items can easily be purchased online from inauthentic sources.

 

Landlords should require an ESA letter to move forward with the tenant’s accommodation request. If they cannot provide this documentation, landlords can request documentation from the tenant’s healthcare provider instead.

Follow Up with the Healthcare Provider that Issued the Letter

If a tenant provides a copy of their ESA letter, landlords can contact the provider that issues the letter to confirm that they indeed recommended an emotional support animal for treatment. All valid ESA letters will contain the name of the patient’s healthcare professional, their contact details, and their signature, among other things.

 

However, this is the only piece of information that the patient’s provider may disclose. Landlords should not ask questions regarding the patient’s specific condition or try to pry into sensitive medical details. This follow up should focus only on whether the provider wrote the letter and recommends the emotional support animal as treatment.

Verify the Letter Came from an Authorized Healthcare Provider

It’s a misconception that only a primary care physician can write an ESA letter. The reality is that many licensed mental health professionals have the authority to write patients an ESA letter. Examples of authorized individuals include:

 

  • Licensed marriage and family therapists
  • Licensed professional counselors
  • Licensed social workers
  • Psychologists
  • Psychiatrists
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Physician’s assistants

 

In addition to the type of healthcare provider, the ESA letter must be issued by a provider who is licensed in the tenant’s state of residency. For example, if a tenant lived in Colorado and is applying for housing in the state of Wyoming, then their ESA letter should be written by a professional licensed in the state of Wyoming.

Make Sure the Letter Contains the Required Information

A valid ESA letter will contain important details and requirements, including but not limited to:

 

  • The healthcare professional’s name and title;
  • The healthcare professional’s contact information, including practice name, address, and phone number;
  • The healthcare professional’s license number;
  • The healthcare professional’s state of licensure;
  • The fact that the tenant has been under the care of the healthcare professional for a mental or emotional condition;
  • The healthcare professional’s explicit recommendation for an emotional support animal as part of the individual’s treatment;
  • The healthcare professional’s signature; and
  • The letter is printed on the healthcare professional’s official letterhead.

 

Fake ESA letters are often missing one or more key pieces of information. Landlords should make it a point to understand the nuances to look for so they can determine with confidence whether a letter provides sufficient documentation.

Questions a Landlord Can and Can’t Ask

Keep in mind that tenants with emotional support animals enjoy certain rights and protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because they are considered individuals with disabilities, there are certain things that landlords can and cannot ask tenants regarding their emotional support animals.

What Landlords Can’t Ask about ESAs

Let’s start with the questions to avoid. Under no circumstance can a landlord ask a tenant questions regarding their diagnosis or the severity of their condition or disability.

 

Some landlords erroneously deny the tenant’s request to accommodate an ESA because their letter didn’t provide sufficient detail about the tenant’s condition. This is actually by design to ensure the patient’s privacy. The tenant’s mental health provider has an obligation to protect a patient’s sensitive medical details, so omitting specific information about their condition is common practice.

 

Recent HUD guidelines state that landlords, HOAs, and other housing providers cannot require healthcare providers to fill out specific forms, furnish notarized documents, or make statements under the penalty of perjury to verify an ESA recommendation.

 

In addition, landlords are prohibited from requesting the patient or their mental health provider for copies of their medical records. Landlords may not discuss a patient’s condition with the healthcare provider. And even if you were to ask their provider for specific health information, the provider has to maintain patient confidentiality according to HIPAA laws. However, the provider may report you for attempting to violate a disabled person’s right to privacy, which could create a ripple effect of legal troubles.

What Landlords Can Ask about ESAs

If a tenant is requesting reasonable accommodations for their emotional support animal, the first question you should ask is whether the tenant can provide an ESA letter. In many cases, they will be able to provide documentation and the conversation can end there.

 

However, if you are uncertain whether the letter is truly valid, you may ask the tenant if you can reach out to their therapist to verify the letter. Once you contact their therapist, the only questions you should ask is whether they issued the letter for the tenant and if they recommend an emotional support animal for the individual. In addition, you can also use this opportunity to confirm the provider’s license number. Licenses can be further verified through the state portal

 

It’s advisable that you only contact the therapist if you truly need additional verification. The more action you take to verify a tenant’s ESA letter, the more opportunities you have to open yourself up to crossing legal boundaries that otherwise could have been avoided.

Can Landlords Request Additional Proof?

Be careful about requesting additional documentation from the tenant, especially if they have already provided a valid ESA letter. Asking for more information could quickly turn into a slippery legal slope, not to mention it may create undue hardships for a disabled tenant. The ESA letter should serve as enough proof that they require an emotional support animal.

 

Many tenants may try to provide certifications, identification cards, pet tags, or show you their emotional support animal’s vest as additional proof. But there are two problems with these types of items:

 

First, these things are not requirements for emotional support animals, so not all tenants will have them.

 

And if tenants do have these items, since they are not required, they cannot be considered as enough supporting evidence that their emotional support animal has been recommended by a licensed mental health professional.

How to Identify a Fake ESA Letter

Are you unsure of whether a tenant’s ESA letter is an internet fake or the real deal? You have a fair reason to be suspicious. With so many fake companies offering ESA letters to just about anyone who applies for one, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

 

Naturally, you want to accommodate those individuals who truly need it. But you also don’t want to potentially endanger your other residents, risk unnecessary damage to the property, or seem partial or unfair by allowing an animal for one resident but not for another.

 

There are a few telltale signs you can look for in addition to the requirements outlined above:

The Language Does Not Comply with Regulations

ESA letters are not usually revealing about a person’s condition. However, there are three things that the letter must state:

 

  • A legal diagnosis from the provider issuing the letter;
  • A statement recommending an emotional support animal for the individual’s treatment; and
  • Why the provider is recommending an emotional support animal (e.g., it helps alleviate symptoms, it’s necessary for helping the tenant live a full life, etc.).

 

These are not very detailed statements, but they are important nonetheless. Without these key pieces of information, an ESA letter is likely a fake or is otherwise invalid.

It Uses Words Like ‘Service Animal’

Small differences in language can be very telling about a letter’s authenticity. For example, emotional support animals are not the same as service animals and the two are never legally used interchangeably. Licensed and experienced healthcare professionals know the difference and would never make the mistake of saying “service animal” in a letter intended for emotional support animals.

 

Another common “synonym” you might see is therapy animal. Therapy animals are in a class all their own and are not an equal substitute for emotional support animals.

 

Pay close attention to the words used in the letter. This might give you all the confirmation you need that something isn’t right.

The Letter Came from a Fake ESA Service

While there are plenty of valid online ESA services like Therapy Pet, there is also a fair share of fake companies itching to take advantage of others. Finding out your tenant got their ESA letter online shouldn’t be an automatic disqualification. However, if your tenant tells you where they got their ESA letter online or if the website is printed on the letter, you can check out the company to see if it’s a reputable provider or a fraudulent one.

 

Some of the signs you can look for in a fraudulent ESA letter provider include:

 

  • The cost of an ESA letter is surprisingly low ($100 or less)
  • The company claims you can skip the mental health screening
  • The company offers ESA letters for immediate download after paying the fee
  • The company claims that purchasing your letter from them will automatically register you or your emotional support animal (hint: there is no such thing as an ESA registry)
  • The company sells ESA “kits” that include a vest, document holder, special tag, and other accessories to make a support animal look more official
  • The company claims you need add-ons like a vest, tag, or similar gear
  • The company promises that you can take your pet anywhere or that your pet will always be able to fly or travel for free
  • The website does not offer contact information (e.g. email address, phone number, etc.) or the contact information is very hard to find

 

Seeing one or all of these signs does not instill confidence in the ESA letter service provider. Any website that makes false claims should not be trusted, especially when it comes to sensitive legal issues like an emotional support animal letter.

 

To be fair, your tenant may have thought they were going through the proper channels to get their ESA letter. They might not realize that they were actually falling prey to a scam. But even if they do have a mental health condition and could benefit from an emotional support animal, only a real medical provider can make that determination and write a letter to make it official.

My Tenant Doesn’t Have a Valid ESA Letter: Now What?

By this point, you know how to do your due diligence as a landlord. You have requested documentation from your tenant. You have read the ESA letter and question its validity. You have contacted the issuing therapist or counselor to confirm their recommendation, if one is listed. And come to find out, the therapist may no longer be practicing in the same state as the tenant. Or maybe they haven’t counseled the tenant in several years and therefore do not feel comfortable confirming the need for an emotional support animal.

 

And if a healthcare provider is not listed, you know that the ESA letter doesn’t provide sufficient evidence for you to accommodate the request.

 

At this point, you face the critical decision of allowing the emotional support animal anyway or asking the tenant to provide a valid, up to date copy of the letter.

 

If you have done your due diligence, it is acceptable to let the tenant know why their current documentation isn’t enough. Let them know that if they can offer a recent and authentic ESA letter, you’d be happy to grant the accommodation immediately.

 

This is exactly why services like Therapy Pet exist. We take the guesswork out of getting a valid ESA letter from a mental health professional licensed in your state. Our streamlined process is all online, allowing tenants to take a free assessment to see if they might qualify, select the type of letter they need, and connect directly with the type of health professional who can help them based on their condition. Once they are approved, they will receive their ESA letter in as little as 72 hours.

 

For more educational resources on emotional support animals and ESA letters, head back to the Therapy Pet blog.