Q&A: Feuding Married Couple Tenants

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Question:

The long-time married couple who rents one of my apartments is going through a nasty divorce. I’m not sure who is moving out, or if both of them are moving out. What should I be concerned about?

Answer:

In addition to the emotional issues involved when a couple who has renting an apartment together break up, landlords need to be aware of several legal situations:

  • If both members of the married couple have signed the lease (which is hopefully the case), both are legally cotenants, which means that each person is responsible for paying the rent and complying with other terms of the lease or rental agreement. This includes giving proper notice and leaving the place in good condition.
  • Landlords must comply with their legal obligations to tenants who have both signed a lease or rental agreement, such as following all laws regarding terminations and evictions and returning security deposits.
  • One spouse may not have the legal right to deprive the other of a place to live—for example, by changing the locks—without a court order ordering a particular tenant to stay out.

The best advice for dealing with a married couple who is going through a nasty breakup is this: Try not to get involved.  It’s not your responsibility to figure out who should leave and whether one cotenant can keep the other out of the rental. There’s one big exception, however—and that is if domestic violence is involved. Call the police immediately if you hear or witness violence between tenants (married or not). The partner who is threatened may be entitled to get a quick court order restraining the other partner from coming near him or her.  For more on the subject of domestic violence, see the Nolo articles Domestic Violence and Domestic Abuse and Legal Protections for Tenants Who Are Victims of Domestic Violence.

For detailed information on the legal and practical issues of renting to cotenants, see Nolo’s book Every Landlord’s Legal Guide.

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