Many tenants who sign a lease for their apartment or rental unit plan to stay for the full amount of time required in the lease, such as one year. But despite your best intentions, you might want (or need) to leave before your lease is up.
Leaving before a fixed-term lease expires without paying the remainder of the rent due under the lease is called breaking the lease. Here's a brief review of the rights of Alabama tenants to break a lease without further liability for the rent.
A lease obligates both you and your landlord for a set period of time, usually a year. Under a typical lease, a landlord can't raise the rent or change other terms, until the lease runs out (unless the lease itself provides for a change, such as a rent increase mid-lease). A landlord can't force you to move out before the lease ends, unless you fail to pay the rent or violate another significant term, such as repeatedly throwing large and noisy parties. In these cases, landlords in Alabama must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy. For example, your landlord must give you seven days' notice to pay the rent or leave before filing an eviction lawsuit. (Ala. Code § 35-9A-421 (2022).) If you have used or possessed illegal drugs in the rental area, your landlord may give you an unconditional quit notice, giving you seven days to move out. (Ala. Code § 35-9A-421 (2022).)
Tenants are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term, typically one year, whether or not they continue to live in the rental unit—with some exceptions, as follows.
There are some important exceptions to the blanket rule that a tenant who breaks a lease owes the rent for the entire lease term. You might be able to legally move out before the lease term ends in the following situations.
If you enter active military service after signing a lease, you have a right to break the lease under federal law. (War and National Defense Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, 50 App. U.S.C.A. § § 501 and following.) You must be part of the "uniformed services," which includes 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.
Under Alabama law, your landlord must give you two days' notice to enter rental property. (Ala. Code § 35-9A-303(2022).) If your landlord repeatedly violates your rights to privacy, or does things like removing windows or doors, turning off your utilities, or changing the locks, a court might consider you "constructively evicted." Most courts allow tenants to break their lease without further rent obligation when they have been constructively evicted.
Despite popular opinion, Alabama tenants can't withhold rent or use "repair and deduct" when landlords fail to make important repairs that are necessary to keep the rental fit and habitable. (Ala. Code § 35-9A-164 (2022).) Tenants should put their requests in writing and deliver the notice to the landlord, giving the landlord 14 days to accomplish the repair (or less, if it's an emergency). If the landlord does not make the repairs, tenants can move out without responsibility for future rent. Alternatively, tenants can remain in the rental and sue the landlord for damages, which would be the difference between the stated rent and the value of the rental in view of its uninhabitable state. Judges can also direct landlords to make repairs.
Tenants in Alabama who are evicted for failure to pay rent can raise, as a counterclaim, the landlord's failure to make needed repairs. But this does not mean that tenants can withhold rent. When tenants properly file a counterclaim in an eviction lawsuit, they must pay all rent due into the court, and the court will then hear the counterclaim. If the judge decides that the counterclaim is frivolous, the landlord might be able to obtain attorneys' fees from the tenant. (Ala. Code § 35-9A-405 (2022).)
Sometimes, even when you don't have a legal justification to break your lease, you might still be off the hook for paying all the rent due for the remaining lease term. This is because under Alabama law, your landlord must make reasonable efforts to re-rent your unit—no matter what your reason for leaving—rather than charge you for the total remaining rent due under the lease. You need pay only the amount of rent the landlord loses because you moved out early. This is because Alabama requires landlords to mitigate their damages (take reasonable steps to keep their losses to a minimum). (Ala. Code §§ 35-9A-105 and 35-9A-423 (2022).)
So, when you break your lease and move out without legal justification, your landlord usually can't just sit back and wait until the end of the lease, and then sue you for the total amount of lost rent. Your landlord must try to rerent the property reasonably quickly and subtract the rent received from new tenants from the amount you owe. The landlord does not need to relax the minimum requirements a replacement tenant must meet—for example, the landlord does not have to accept someone with a low credit score. Also, the landlord is not required to rent the unit for less than fair market value, or to renting your unit a top priority while disregarding other business. Finally, the landlord can add legitimate expenses to your bill—for example, the costs of advertising the property.
If your landlord rerents the property quickly (more likely in college towns and similar markets), all you'll be responsible for is the (hopefully brief) amount of time the unit was vacant.
The bad news is that if the landlord tries to rerent your unit, and can't find an acceptable tenant, you will be liable for paying rent for the remainder of your lease term. This could be a substantial amount of money if you leave several months before your lease ends. Your landlord will probably first use your security deposit to cover the amount you owe. But if your deposit is not sufficient, your landlord can sue sue you for the remainder owed.
When you want to leave early, and you don't have legal justification to do so, there are better options than just moving out and hoping your landlord gets a new tenant quickly. There's a lot you can do to limit the amount of money you need to pay your landlord—and help ensure a good reference from the landlord when you're looking for your next place to live.
You can help the situation by providing as much notice as possible and writing a sincere letter to your landlord explaining why you need to leave early. Ideally you can offer your landlord a qualified replacement tenant, someone with good credit and excellent references, to sign a new lease with your landlord.
Every Tenant's Legal Guide (Nolo) provides extensive legal and practical advice that every tenant needs, from move in to move out, including how to get your landlord to cancel your lease, plus dozens of forms and sample letters.
To learn more about landlord-tenant laws in your state, see the State Landlord-Tenant Laws section of the Nolo site.