Find out how state laws differ for when a tenant can or can’t legally break a lease early without penalty. Click the links below about breaking a lease in each state, or read further for a summary of both federal and state-specific laws.
Legal Reasons for Breaking a Lease Early
|Federal law allows tenants who are servicemembers to terminate their leases if they are relocating due to deployment or permanent change of station.
|Early Termination Clause
|Certain leases will have provisions allowing a tenant to terminate the lease early in exchange for a fee.
|If a tenant gives the landlord notice of necessary repairs, and the issues are not resolved, the tenant may be able to terminate the lease.
|Landlord harassment is when the landlord creates conditions that are designed to encourage the tenant to break the lease agreement.
|Domestic or Sexual Violence
|Most states allow tenants who are victims of domestic or sexual violence to terminate their leases early so long as they meet certain requirements.
|In some states, when a tenant dies, the estate will be able to terminate the lease if they do not wish to continue on with the obligation.
|Invalid or Void Leases
|A lease may contain provisions that are unenforceable or void as being deemed against public policy.
|A landlord may not harass or evict a tenant that reports landlord violations to the appropriate authorities.
|Mental or Physical Disability
|Tenants who require accommodations because of their mental or physical disability may terminate their leases early.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) helps protect active service members who are relocated due to deployment or permanent change of station. The protection begins on the date of entering duty and ends between 30-90 days after the date of discharge.
To break a lease in accordance with the relief act, a tenant must:
- Prove the lease was signed before entering active duty
- Prove they will remain on active duty for at least the next 90 days
- Deliver a written notice to the landlord (example), accompanied by a copy of the orders to deploy, a permanent change of station (PCS) or a letter from their commanding officer stating their pending deployment.
The lease does not terminate automatically, but rather the earliest a tenant can terminate is 30 days after the beginning of the next rent period. For example, if the notice was delivered on the 23rd of March, and the rent is due on the 1st of each month, the earliest the lease can terminate is May 1st (meaning, rent is still due for the month of April).
Early Termination Clause
Certain lease agreements provide specific terms that allow for tenants to terminate early in exchange for a penalty fee. Read over the lease and look for any language that outlines agreed-upon terms for ending the lease before the end of the fixed period, such as the amount of the fee (i.e. equal to 2 month’s rent) and the amount of notice required (i.e. 30 days).
If a lease agreement contains an early termination clause, before executing it and paying the penalty fee, read further to learn about other conditions that, if met, would not require a penalty fee to be paid.
If a state’s specific health and safety codes are not met, proper notice is given by the tenant. If the repairs are still not made within the allowable time period, a tenant would be considered “constructively evicted.” As a result, the obligations of the tenant under the lease are no longer required.
States that do not have statutes regulating the minimum requirements for habitability include:
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
Tenants have the right to break their lease due to landlord harassment, which often manifests itself in these ways:
- Providing personal information about a tenant to strangers
- Allowing someone to enter the dwelling without the tenant’s permission
- Sexually harassing a tenant
- Visiting the tenant’s workplace
- Restricting guests without cause
- Spying on the tenant or visiting frequently
- Cutting off amenities that were included in the lease
- Refusing to make repairs
- Raising rent
- Threatening behavior
- Entering without proper notice or reason
- Changing the locks
Domestic or Sexual Violence
Landlord protections available to victims of domestic or sexual violence include:
- Termination of Lease. Landlords cannot refuse to terminate a lease when the tenant is a victim of domestic violence.
- Protection from termination. Landlords cannot refuse to rent to a potential tenant because they were a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.
- Changing locks. If a tenant requests the landlord to change the locks and they fail to do so within 24 hours of your request, a tenant will be able to do so on their own
- Additionally, landlords cannot end a lease or refuse to renew a lease because the tenant was a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.
States that do not have statutes regulating the minimum requirements for domestic violence include:
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
For an act of domestic violence to qualify as grounds for breaking a lease, all must be true:
- It is committed against the tenant or child of a tenant by a household member
- It is intended to result in harm, injury, or sexual assault OR it reasonably places the victim in fear of imminent harm or assault
In most states, a tenant or tenant’s estate will be able to terminate a lease early if the tenant dies before the expiration of the lease. The tenant or tenant’s estate can terminate the lease early so long as:
- The tenant was the sole occupant over the age of 18
- The tenant’s estate provides documentation such as a tenant’s death certificate to the landlord
- The tenant’s estate provides this documentation within a state-specific period of time.
Termination is usually not effective immediately. One the tenant’s estate provides notice to the landlord, it is up to the estate of whether they would like to continue paying the rent or terminating the lease.
If released, the tenant’s estate will still be liable for any past-due rent and any damages to the premises that are beyond normal wear and tear.
Invalid or Void Leases
Within leases, there are certain terms or provisions that can negate the effects of the lease. A lease may be deemed invalid or voidable if any of the below are true:
- 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. 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 units with too-low ceilings, no address, no dedicated gas or 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, if a tenant is injured because of the landlord’s negligence, most state law dictates the landlord be responsible for damages. Therefore, a lease waiving the landlord’s responsibility for injuries caused by the landlord’s negligence would render that lease void.
When a lease is considered unenforceable or void, it is immediately terminated, as if the lease was never signed. Therefore, the tenant can provide notice to the landlord of termination of the lease, move out, and stop paying rent. Furthermore, because the agreement is viewed as never in existence, any security deposits paid should be returned.
In a majority of states, a tenant can terminate a lease early due to landlord retaliation.
States that do not have statutes regulating the minimum requirements for landlord retaliation include:
- New Hampshire
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
Landlords and tenants each have specific rights and responsibilities under federal, state, and local landlord-tenant law. If either party is not fulfilling its obligations, the other party has a right to address it. When a landlord-tenant dispute occurs and the landlord tries to punish the tenant for exercising their rights, it will be illegal and grounds to terminate the lease.
Some rights tenants may exercise certain rights under the law include:
- Reporting violations of health or building codes to the local health board
- Withholding rent due to the landlord’s failure to make necessary repairs
- Complaining to any board that regulates residential premises about the violation in the property.
After a tenant exercises these rights, a landlord may retaliate by:
- Filing an eviction proceeding
- Depriving the tenant use of the premises
- Decreasing services to the tenant
- Increasing rent or substantially altering the terms of the tenancy
- Purposefully interfering with the tenant’s rights under the lease
Mental or Physical Disability
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) helps protect persons with disabilities that are unable to continue living in the are eligible for reasonable accommodations. A reasonable accommodation is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with disabilities to have an equal opportunity to enjoy where they live.
To break a lease in accordance with the FHA and ADA, a tenant must:
- Meet the definition of a disability and be eligible for a reasonable accommodation
- Have a record of the disability
- Notify the landlord, in writing, their intent to terminate the lease
Can a Tenant Break a Lease Early For Feeling Unsafe?
There are no laws that allow a tenant to break a lease early due to feeling unsafe. Landlords do have certain legal responsibilities related to the implied warranty of habitability such as keeping the common areas safe and secure.
If for some reason the landlord does not repair issues and non-residents or criminals are able to enter the premises, then the landlord would be in breach of the lease and the tenant would be able to terminate the lease.
Can a Tenant Break a Lease Early Due to Job Relocation?
There are no laws that allow a tenant to break a lease early due to job relocation. If no early termination clause exists, a tenant could attempt to negotiate with the landlord to see whether the tenant could break the lease in exchange for a fee. If that is not an option, the tenant could look to sublet or assign the lease to someone else.
Can a Tenant Break a Lease Early Due to Divorce?
There are no laws that allow a tenant to break a lease early due to divorce. No laws exist allowing a tenant to break their lease when going through a divorce. In general, a tenant cannot break their lease early due to a divorce unless the lease permits early termination specifically for a divorce or the lease allows early termination in general. If there is no early termination clause, a tenant could attempt to negotiate with the landlord to see whether the tenant could break the lease in exchange for a fee.
Can a Tenant Break a Lease Early Due to Backing Out of a Lease After Signing?
There are no laws that allow a tenant to break a lease early due to backing out of a lease after signing. Although circumstances may arise, a lease is a signed contract that binds the tenant and landlord in an agreement. If no early termination clause exists, a tenant could attempt to negotiate with the landlord to see whether the tenant could break the lease in exchange for a fee. If that is not an option, the tenant could look to sublet or assign the lease to someone else.
Can a Tenant Break a Lease Early Due to Buying a House?
A tenant cannot break a lease early due to buying a house. If no early termination clause exists, a tenant could attempt to negotiate with the landlord to see whether the tenant could break the lease in exchange for a fee. If that is not an option, the tenant could look to sublet or assign the lease to someone else.
Landlord’s Responsibility to Mitigate Damages
Landlords in most states must try and re-rent the unit if a tenant breaks the lease early. Once the landlord re-rents the unit, the original tenant is no longer responsible for any remaining rent payments.
The law requires landlords to “mitigate” damages, which means the landlord must minimize any damages related to the tenant’s departure. If a landlord refuses to mitigate damages, then the tenant is no longer responsible for the remaining rent due.
Damage mitigation generally looks like:
- A landlord showing an apartment to all prospective tenants
- A landlord advertising the premises through different means such as online and social media
- A landlord refusing to rent out a unit when it would mean accepting less than fair market value
Note that the landlord does not have to find a replacement immediately. A landlord only needs to make a good-faith effort to look for a new renter.
A majority of states require the landlord to mitigate damages. The only states that do not require a landlord to mitigate damages is: