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—for example, if you're a student at Arkansas State and want to stay in your apartment only while school is in session.
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 a tenant's right in Arkansas 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 of the lease, such as repeatedly throwing large and noisy parties. In these cases, landlords in Arkansas must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy.
Tenants are legally bound to pay rent for the full lease term, typically one year, whether or not you 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.
If your landlord fails to provide a habitable residence—in other words, if your rental doesn't meet basic health and safety requirements—you must notify your landlord in writing of the violations. If the landlord doesn't fix the problems within 30 calendar days of receiving the notice, you can terminate the lease or rental agreement without penalty and receive a refund of your security deposit. (Ark. Code Ann. § 18-17-502(d) (2021).)
Arkansas state law doesn't require your landlord to give you notice before entering your rental. However, 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 judge might consider this to be a "constructive eviction." This would usually justify your breaking the lease and free you of further obligation.
Landlords in most states must make a reasonable effort to re-rent their units when a tenant breaks a lease, rather than charge the tenant for the total remaining rent due under the lease. Unfortunately, landlords in Arkansas (Weingarten/Arkansas, Inc. v. ABC Interstate Theatres, Inc., 811 S.W.2d 295 (Ark. 1991)) do not have the same responsibility to "mitigate damages" by trying to rent their property reasonably quickly and keeping their losses to a minimum if you move before a lease ends. If you break your lease and move out without a legal justification (described above), try to work something out with your landlord. Don't just move out and hope your landlord gets a new tenant quickly and doesn't charge you for the remaining time on your lease. Provide your landlord as much notice as possible and write a sincere letter explaining why you need to leave early. Ideally, you can offer your landlord a qualified replacement tenant with good credit and references, to sign a new lease.
If the landlord doesn't agree to let you off the hook, though, you will be liable for paying rent for the remainder of your lease. 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 you, probably in small claims court where the limit is $5,000 in Arkansas.
If 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 a lot 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.
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