Find out when a tenant can legally break a lease in Massachusetts, when they can’t, and whether or not a landlord is required by Massachusetts law to make reasonable effort to rerent.
Before we address the legally acceptable reasons to get out a lease early without penalty, it’s important to know the notice requirements in Massachusetts to end a tenancy in general.
Lease Termination Notice Requirements in Massachusetts
In Massachusetts, a tenant is not required to provide notice for fixed end date leases. All of the remaining lease terms require written notice based on their length:
- Notice to terminate a month-to-month lease. Equal to the interval between the days of payment or thirty days, whichever is longer. (MGL c.186 § 12)
- Notice to terminate a yearly lease with no fixed end date. If payment intervals are 3 months or longer, then 3 month’s notice is required. (MGL c.186 § 12)
Conditions for Legally Breaking a Lease in Massachusetts
There are a handful of scenarios where a tenant can legally break a lease in Massachusetts 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 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, 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. 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).
In Massachusetts, the term “servicemember” means a member of the armed forces, commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, and the activated National Guard. You must give your landlord written notice of your intent to terminate your tenancy for military reasons. Once the notice is mailed or delivered, your tenancy will terminate 30 days after the date that rent is next due, even if that date is several months before your lease expires.
3. Unit is Uninhabitable
Every state has specific health and safety codes that provide minimum standards for rental units, and Massachusetts 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 the Massachusetts landlord-tenant law.
In Massachusetts, landlord duties to provide habitable premises include the following:
- Running water and reasonable amounts of hot water. The landlord must provide the means for enough water and pressure to satisfy ordinary needs. The landlord also must provide the means to heat the water to 110F-130F degrees.
- Functioning heating facilities. From September 16 to June 14, every room must be heated to at least 68º F between 7:00 AM and 11 PM, and at least 64º F at all other hours.
- Working kitchen. The landlord must provide:
- A sink of sufficient size and capacity for washing dishes and kitchen utensils
- A stove and oven in good repair (unless your written lease requires you to provide your own)
- Space and proper facilities for the installation of a refrigerator. If a refrigerator is provided, the landlord must keep it in working order.
- Appropriate extermination. The landlord must maintain the unit free from rodents, cockroaches, and insect infestation if there are two or more apartments in the building.
4. Landlord Harassment or Privacy Violation
If the action is serious enough, harassment by a landlord or their violation of a tenant’s privacy may be enough justification for relieving a tenant of their obligations of the lease.
- Landlord entry. Massachusetts state law does not specify an amount of notice your landlord must give to enter the rental property, but 24 hours is recommended. (MGL c.186 § 15B(1)(a))
- Changing the locks. In some states, 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. In Massachusetts, lockouts are not allowed.
5. Domestic Violence
Massachusetts provides tenants who are victims of domestic violence with special rental provisions for their protection. If you are confronting a domestic violence situation (this can also be stalking), and want to move, check with local law enforcement regarding special state laws that may apply in domestic violence situations.
Some statutes the state of Massachusetts provides for victims of domestic violence include:
- Proof of Status. The landlord is entitled to verify the claim of Domestic Violence status. (MGL c.186 § 24(a))
- Termination of Lease. A tenant is allowed to terminate a lease with proof of Domestic Violence status, however, the request to terminate must happen within 3 months from the incident date. (MGL c.186 § 24(b))
- Landlord Cannot Terminate Lease. A landlord may not refuse to enter into a rental agreement based on the applicant’s or household member’s status as a victim of domestic violence, or having previously terminated a lease or requested a lock change due to domestic violence. (MGL c.186 § 25)
- Locks. Upon request, the landlord must change the locks or allow the tenant to change the locks to the dwelling at the tenant’s expense. (MGL c.186 § 26)
Examples of Insufficient Justification for Lease Breaking in Massachusetts
The below reasons are generally not enough justification (on their own) to release a tenant from the obligation of their lease term, and as a result, provide no legal protection against penalties for not honoring the lease.
- They bought a house
- They are relocating for a new job or school
- They are upgrading or downgrading
- They are moving in with a partner
- They are moving to be closer to family
Since state landlord-tenant laws vary, the following reasons may legally permit a tenant to terminate their tenancy early in other states but are not applicable in Massachusetts:
- Violation of the 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).
- Illegal contract. In some scenarios, a lease agreement may be deemed illegal and as a result, is generally not enforceable.
- Mandatory disclosures. Many state and local laws require landlords to disclose documentation, policies, or specific unit information to tenants prior to moving in. Disclosure laws typically impose heavy fines or legal ramifications to landlords if they are not followed. In rare cases, they contain penalty provisions that may allow you to break your lease.
- Senior citizen or health issue. Some states offer age or health-related lease-breaking arrangements that permit early lease termination.
Breaking a lease for any of the above reasons or in any conditions not previously outlined can have tangible consequences for tenants.
Massachusetts state law does not require landlords to take reasonable steps to rerent their unit when a tenant breaks their lease..
Tenant’s Right to Sublet in Massachusetts
If your lease does not prohibit subletting, then you are in the clear to do so. However, your lease might contain a clause requiring you to obtain your landlord’s approval prior to subletting. To get landlord approval you will want to send them a letter through certified mail, with a return receipt requested, outlining the terms of the sublet lease agreement. Certified mail is the only proof of delivery that most courts will accept in case you need proof that you notified your landlord.
The letter should include the following information:
- Sublet term
- Name of proposed subtenant or assignee
- The permanent home address of proposed subtenant or assignee
- Your reason for subletting or leaving permanently
- Your new address during the sublease if applicable
- The written consent of any co‑tenant
- A copy of the proposed sublease
If your landlord rejects your request, know that they can only refuse the proposed subtenant based on legitimate factors. The law says your landlord cannot unreasonably refuse your sublet.