Breaking a Lease in Georgia

Find out when a tenant can legally break a lease in Georgia, when they can’t, what options they have if they don’t have proper cause, and what the consequences are of walking out on a lease agreement.

Importance of Fixed Periods in Lease Agreements

Without a fixed period, a landlord generally has the same rights as the tenant to terminate tenancy (with proper notice). In the same way that a landlord lacks long-term security on a month-to-month (or shorter period) lease if a tenant decides to leave, tenants lack the same security if the landlord decides to change the terms (i.e. raise the rent) or end the lease altogether.

That’s why fixed periods are an important protection for both parties. They’re not just there to act as a restriction to tenants.

As a result, there are real legal consequences for violating the agreement without proper cause on either side. It’s important to understand when a tenant can get out a lease with a fixed period that hasn’t ended, and when a tenant can’t.

NOTE

If a lease agreement does not have a fixed period (i.e. it’s month-to-month), or if a tenant is no longer renting during the fixed period of the lease, they can give notice to the landlord to terminate the lease at any time. In Georgia, a tenant must provide 30 days notice for lease termination (for landlords it’s 60 days notice), although they’re still under lease and are obligated to pay rent until the end of that period. We’ll talk more about Georgia lease termination notice requirements further down.

Conditions for Legally Breaking a Lease in Georgia

There are a handful of scenarios where a tenant can legally break a lease in Georgia without penalty. We’ll go through each of them below.

1. Early Termination Clause

 Some modern lease agreements may provide specific terms that would allow a tenant to terminate a lease early in exchange for a penalty fee. Read over the lease and look for 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.

2. Active Military Duty

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) helps protect active service members who are deployed,  relocated, or have a 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, page 2), accompanied by a copy of the orders to deploy / PCS or a letter from their commanding officer stating their pending deployment.

With that said, the lease does not terminate immediately. Once the notice is delivered, the earliest the lease can terminate is 30 days after the beginning of the next rent period.

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).

According to GA Code § 44-7-22, the term “service member” means an active duty member of the regular or reserve component of the United States armed forces, the United States Coast Guard, the Georgia National Guard, or the Georgia Air National Guard on ordered federal duty.

3. Unit is Uninhabitable

Every state has specific health & safety codes that provide minimum standards for rental units, and Georgia is no different.

If those standards are not met, proper notice is given by the tenant and the repairs/fixes 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, given that the landlord has not met their own responsibilities under Georgia landlord tenant law.

4. Landlord Harassment or Privacy Violation

 If the action is serious enough, harassment by a landlord or the violation of a tenant’s privacy may be enough justification for relieving a tenant of their obligations of the lease.

Landlord entry. Georgia law does not implicitly provide a landlord, with or without notice, the right to enter the premises (unless in case of emergency). With that said, language in the lease agreement may be provided to outline terms that would allow for a landlord to enter the property (usually with a certain amount of notice, i.e. 24 hours).

Changing the locks. If the locks are changed by a landlord without the tenant’s permission or without the protection of specific language in the lease agreement, this can qualify as being “constructively evicted”, and could relieve the tenant of their duties of the lease.

5. Violation of Lease Agreement

 If a landlord violates the terms of the lease agreement, it may be enough justification to break the lease and relieve the tenant from their own obligations (i.e. illegally raising the rent during the fixed period). Because each lease agreement is different, carefully read over the duties and requirements for both parties to understand if a violation has been made, and whether or not there is language describing how certain violations are to be handled.

6. Illegal Contract

 In some scenarios, a lease agreement may be deemed illegal in the state of Georgia, and as a result, are generally not enforceable.

Over 1 year lease without description of property. For a written lease agreement with a fixed period of greater than 1 year to be valid in Georgia, it needs to have a clear description of the leased property.

Illegal units. The definition of what constitutes an illegal rental unit can vary by location and isn’t always entirely clear. On the state level, Georgia unfortunately does not appear to have clear information of what defines a legal rental unit.

7. Domestic Violence

As of 2018, Georgia finally joined other states in passing a bill that allows victims of domestic violence to terminate their lease early (House Bill 834, which became § 44-7-23). The following conditions have to be met in order to qualify for this condition:

  • The lease must have been started, extended or made on July 1, 2018 or later.
  • The victim must have a civil or criminal family violence order such as a 12-month Temporary Protective Order (TPO) or bond conditions that state the abuser is not allowed to have contact with the victim.
  • The victim must provide written notice of termination to the landlord (example, see pages 8-10), accompanied by a certified copy of the applicable civil or criminal family violence order.

As with lease termination under the SCRA for active military duty, the lease does not terminate immediately. Once the notice is delivered, the earliest the lease can terminate is 30 days after the beginning of the next rent period. So 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).

Note About Illegal Retaliation in Georgia

 In July of 2019, House Bill 346 (which became § 44-7-24) went into effect providing tenants with protection against landlords that retaliate to actions such as giving notice to make repairs or reporting to governmental entities about violations in building or housing codes. The bill does not state that these types of illegal retaliation are enough justification for lease termination, but the bill does allow for a sizable penalty against the landlord if they’re found in violation (1 month’s rent + legal fees + $500), which could help offset the costs of penalty fees associated with early termination.

Insufficient Justification for Lease Breaking in Georgia

The below reasons are generally not enough justification (on their own) to release a tenant from their obligation of the lease, and as a result, provide no legal protection against a landlord seeking the rent due for the remainder of the fixed period.

  • The tenant bought a house.
  • The tenant is relocating for a new job or school.
  • The tenant is upgrading or downgrading.
  • The tenant is moving in with a partner.
  • The tenant is moving to be closer to their family.

Breaking a lease for any of the above reasons and attempting to not pay the remaining rent amount can have tangible consequences for tenants.

Tenant’s Options if Conditions Are Not Met

If the previously stated legal conditions are not met, there are still a few options that a tenant has that could allow for them to not be obligated to pay rent until the end of the fixed period.

Talk with the Landlord

Some landlords may be understanding and willing to negotiate with a tenant. Every situation is different, and every landlord is different. A tenant’s best chance at getting a landlord to work with them is to be honest about the reasons for leaving, to provide as much notice as possible, and to propose possible resolutions that could be mutually beneficial (i.e. by paying 2 month’s rent).

Aid in Finding a New Tenant

 If the tenant moves out before the end of the fixed period, they are still required to pay rent until the end of the period until a new tenant is found. During that remainder period, the landlord is required to make reasonable effort to find a new tenant (if they don’t, the previous tenant is not responsible for future rent).

Therefore, the previous tenant may choose to be proactive and help to find a new tenant on their own, instead of waiting for the landlord to find one. The landlord does not have to accept the newly found tenant if they have reasonable justification (i.e. they have bad credit or rental history), but helping to find a new tenant can only help increase a tenant’s chances of being relieved of future rent.

Consequences of Illegal Lease Breaking

If a tenant breaks a lease without mutual agreement from the landlord or without the proper legal justification and does not pay the rent due for the remainder of the fixed period, the tenant faces the following consequences.

  • Loss of security deposit. Usually, at a minimum, a landlord may choose to withhold the security deposit.
  • Lawsuit. A landlord may sue the tenant for unpaid rent during the fixed period, which if won, could result in the tenant facing a money judgment. That judgment, if not paid on the spot or if terms are not set for a long-term payment plan, could result in the garnishment of the tenant’s wages or bank account.
  • Impact on credit score. While a money judgment won’t show up on a tenant’s credit report (thanks to the National Consumer Assistance Plan), if the landlord chooses to go an alternative route to collecting on unpaid rent by using a debt collection agency, the tenant’s credit score could be severely impacted.
  • Difficulty for finding future housing. Whether or not a tenant provides the landlord’s name & contact information themselves when looking to buy or rent in the future, a background check will most likely provide the future landlord or mortgage lender with that information. That previous landlord could provide a very negative reference.

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