Can a Tenant Break a Lease Early Due to it Being Invalid or Void?

Last Updated: October 10, 2023 by Phil Ahn

A tenant that signs an invalid or void lease has the ability to terminate the lease early without penalty. Certain provisions can never be included in a residential lease. If they are, they’re considered void and unenforceable.

What Qualifies as an Invalid or Unenforceable Lease?

There are certain scenarios that will deem a lease illegal or enforceable:

  • A tenant was forced to sign the lease under duress. Duress means there is coercion through physical force or an unlawful threat that eliminates one’s free will to do what they want.
  • The party signing the lease was a minor. In most states, the age of majority is 18. With regards to leases, anyone can sign one, including a minor. Because leases are generally viewed as contracts, and a minor cannot be bound by their contracts, the law will automatically allow the minor to void the contract, if they choose.
  • The leased premise is illegal. An illegal unit is one that is used for residential purposes, but is not registered with the proper authorities as required by law. These are units that don’t comply with legal requirements for housing, such as too-low ceilings, no address, no dedicated gas/electric meter, or improper electric systems.
  • The lease waives any rights guaranteed by state or federal law. Certain laws provide protections for tenants that are not waivable. For example:
    • A lease can’t waive a landlord’s duty to keep a rental habitable
    • A lease can’t waive a landlord’s duty to mitigate damages
    • A lease can’t waive notice requirements and entry laws for landlords

Other unenforceable clauses include:

  • Punishing tenants in any way for calling the police if they reasonably believe someone is in trouble
  • Speeding up rent payments if a tenant breaks a rule in the lease
  • Allowing a landlord to seize a tenant’s property if they fall behind on rent
  • Taking away a tenant’s right to a trial by jury (certain states allow a lease to call for arbitration first, but completely banning the possibility of a trial in court is not legal)
  • Requiring tenants to pay for all damages to a rental unit, regardless of whether or not it was their fault

How to Prove an Invalid or Unenforceable Lease

Tenants can prove that there is an illegal or unenforceable lease by:

  • Proving a lease was signed under duress. A tenant must be able to show that they did not sign the lease on their own free will. Usually duress will manifest through threats of harm or physical violence. The burden of proof then shifts to the other party, who must prove that any threats made to the person did not force them into signing the lease.
  • Proving that the party signing the lease was a minor. The easiest way will be to provide a birth certificate showing exactly when the tenant was born. Once confirmed, they will then be given the choice of whether they want to void the lease.
  • Proving the unit is illegal. A tenant can search public files at the local housing inspection department or agency. A tenant can search these files online by locating the “Certificate of Occupancy” document. Generally, every city or county will have a database where an individual can input the address of the property in question. Simply search “[the county or city name] + certificate of occupancy.”

How to Terminate a Lease Due to an Invalid or Unenforceable Lease

To terminate a lease for invalid or unenforceable clauses, a tenant must provide notice to the landlord that they are terminating the lease because of the illegal clauses. They must also notify the landlord of the date in which the lease will terminate and the tenant will vacate the premises.