Wisconsin
Breaking a Lease

Find out when a tenant can legally break a lease in Wisconsin, when they can’t, and whether or not a landlord is required by Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin to end a tenancy in general.

Lease Termination Notice Requirements in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, a tenant is not required to provide notice for fixed end date leases, the lease expires on the last day of the lease. Wisconsin tenants have to provide written notice for the following lease terms:

  • Notice to terminate a lease with no end date. 5 days (Wis. Stat. Ann. §§ 704.17(1))
  • Notice to terminate a month-to-month lease. 28 days (Wis. Stat. Ann. §§ 704.19(3))

There are a handful of scenarios where a tenant can legally break a lease in Wisconsin 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).

NOTE

In Wisconsin, 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.

3. Unit is Uninhabitable

Every state has specific health and safety codes that provide minimum standards for rental units, and Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin landlord-tenant law. According to Wisconsin state law, landlord duties to provide habitable premises include the following (§ 704.07):

  • Except for repairs made necessary by the negligence of, or improper use of the premises by, the tenant, the landlord has a duty to do all of the following:
    • Keep in a reasonable state of repair portions of the premises over which the landlord maintains control.
    • Keep in a reasonable state of repair all equipment under the landlord’s control necessary to supply services that the landlord has expressly or impliedly agreed to furnish to the tenant, such as heat, water, elevator, or air conditioning.
    • Make all necessary structural repairs.
  • Except for residential premises subject to a local housing code, repair or replace any plumbing, electrical wiring, machinery, or equipment furnished with the premises and no longer in reasonable working condition.
  • For a residential tenancy, comply with any local housing code applicable to the premises.
  • A landlord shall disclose to a prospective tenant, before entering into a rental agreement with or accepting any earnest money or security deposit from the prospective tenant, any building code or housing code violation to which all of the following apply:
    • The landlord has actual knowledge of the violation.
    • The violation affects the dwelling unit that is the subject of the prospective rental agreement or a common area of the premises.
    • The violation presents a significant threat to the prospective tenant’s health or safety.
    • The violation has not been corrected.

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. Wisconsin state law states that the landlord must give 12 hours notice to enter the rental property (Wis. Stat. Ann. §§ 704.05(2)). If your landlord repeatedly violates your rights to privacy or does removes windows or doors, turns off your utilities, or changes the locks, you would be considered “constructively evicted,” as described above.
  • 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 Wisconsin, lockouts are not permitted.

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.

In Wisconsin, a rental agreement is void and unenforceable if it does any of the following (ATCP 134.08):

  • Allows a landlord to do any of the following because a tenant has contacted an entity for law enforcement services, health services, or safety services:
    • Increase rent.
    • Decrease services.
    • Bring an action for possession of the premises.
    • Refuse to renew a rental agreement.
    • Threaten to take action.
  • Authorizes the eviction or exclusion of a tenant from the premises, other than by judicial eviction procedures as provided under ch. 799, Stats.
  • Provides for an acceleration of rent payments in the event of tenant default or breach of obligations under the rental agreement, or otherwise waives the landlord’s obligation to mitigate damages as provided under s. 704.29, Stats.
  • Requires payment by the tenant of attorney fees or costs incurred by the landlord in any legal action or dispute arising under the rental agreement. This subsection does not prevent a landlord or tenant from recovering costs or attorney fees under a court order under ch. 799 or 814, Stats.
  • Authorizes the landlord or an agent of the landlord to confess judgment against the tenant in any action arising under the rental agreement.
  • States that the landlord is not liable for property damage or personal injury caused by negligent acts or omissions of the landlord. This subsection does not affect the ordinary maintenance obligations of a tenant under s. 704.07, Stats., or of a tenant under a rental agreement or other written agreement between the landlord and the tenant.
  • Imposes liability on a tenant for any of the following:
    • Personal injury arising from causes clearly beyond the tenant’s control.
    • Property damage caused by natural disasters, or by persons other than the tenant or the tenant’s guests or invitees. This paragraph does not affect the ordinary maintenance obligations of a tenant under s. 704.07, Stats., or of a tenant under a rental agreement or other written agreement between the landlord and the tenant.
    • Waives any statutory or other legal obligation on the part of the landlord to deliver the premises in a fit or habitable condition, or to maintain the premises during the tenant’s tenancy.
    • Allows the landlord to terminate the tenancy of a tenant based solely on the commission of a crime in or on the rental property if the tenant, or someone who lawfully resides with the tenant, is a victim, as defined in s. 950.02 (4), Stats., of that crime.
    • Allows the landlord to terminate the tenancy of a tenant for a crime committed in relation to the rental property and the rental agreement does not include the notice required under s. 704.14, Stats.

6. Domestic Violence

Wisconsin 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. The state of Wisconsin provides victims of domestic violence the following:

  • Special Treatment. A landlord cannot end or refuse to renew your tenancy based upon the fact that you or a member of your household is a victim of a documented act of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. (Wis. Stat. Ann. §§ 106.50(5m)). A landlord may not evict a tenant solely because of their status as a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking (Wis. Stat. Ann. §§ 106.50(5m)(dm)). Landlords are still allowed to evict anyone because of non-payment or a lease violation.
  • Termination of Tenancy for Imminent Threat. Landlord and Tenant may terminate a tenancy if a tenant or a child of the tenant faces an imminent threat of serious physical harm from another person if the tenant remains on the premises. (Wis. Stat. Ann. §§ 704.16)
  • Locks. The landlord must change the locks within 48 hours of tenant providing a certified copy of an injunction or criminal complaint in which the tenant is in jeopardy. The tenant is responsible for the cost of changing the locks. (Wis. Stat. Ann. §§ 704.16)

Examples of Insufficient Justification for Lease Breaking in Wisconsin

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 Wisconsin:

  • 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.

Landlord’s Responsibility to Rerent in Wisconsin

Wisconsin state law does require landlords to take reasonable steps to rerent their unit when a tenant breaks their lease. This is referred to as the landlord’s duty to “mitigate damages”. This means that if you leave your lease early and your landlord rerents the unit before your lease ends, then the rent received from the new tenant will apply to your debt.

According to Wisconsin code §§ 704.29(2)(b), your landlord must make reasonable efforts to rerent their unit instead of charging you for the total remaining rent due under the lease. If your landlord rerents the property quickly, all you’ll be responsible for is the amount of time the unit was vacant.

Keep in mind, not all landlords are aware of their duty to mitigate. If your landlord demands payment for the remaining balance of your lease, you may want to notify them of your state’s law.

TIP

Wisconsin tenants who break their lease early without proper justification should still plan on losing at least one month’s rent, even though the landlord has a responsible to rerent. In Wisconsin and other states where the law requires the landlord to make a reasonable effort to rerent, judges in civil courts commonly award landlords with at least one month’s rent, no matter how quickly the unit is rented.

Tenant’s Right to Sublet in Wisconsin

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.

Additional Resources for Wisconsin Tenants & Landlords: