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 may want (or need) to leave before your lease is up—for example, if you’re a student at UMass Amherst and only want to stay in your apartment for the period of time that school is in session. Or perhaps you’re moving in with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes, you may need to move in order to be closer to your new job or an elderly parent who needs your help.
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 tenant rights in Massachusetts 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 Massachusetts must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy. For example, your landlord must give you 14 days’ notice (if the issue is not addressed in the rental agreement) to pay the rent or leave (Massachusetts Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 186, § § 11 to 12) before filing an eviction lawsuit.
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 may 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 does not provide habitable housing under local and state housing codes, a court would probably conclude that you have been “constructively evicted;” this means that the landlord, by supplying unlivable housing, has for all practical purposes “evicted” you, so you have no further responsibility for the rent. Massachusetts law (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 111, § 127L and ch. 239 §8A) sets specific requirements for the procedures you must follow before moving out because of a major repair problem. The problem must be truly serious, such as the lack of heat or other essential service.
State law (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann, ch. 186 § 24) provides early termination rights for tenants who are victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, or stalking (or who have reasonable fears of imminent physical harm), provided that specified conditions are met (such as the tenant securing a valid protection order).
Massachusetts state law does not specify how much notice your landlord must give you to enter rental property (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 186 § 15B(1)(a)). 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, you would be considered “constructively evicted,” as described above; this would usually justify you breaking the lease without further rent obligation.
The law in Massachusetts is a bit unsettled. A long line of old cases stands for the proposition that a landlord does not have a duty to mitigate damages. However, consumer information booklets published by the state (A Massachusetts Consumer Guide to Landlord Rights and Responsibilities) and tenants' rights organizations (MassLegalHelp), say that landlords do have such a duty. It's probably fair to say that in practice (that is, in trials and negotiations, which are not published and do not serve as official statements of the law), landlords are expected to take steps to mitigate and fare poorly if they do not mitigate but still sue to collect rent from long-gone tenants. To find out what the practice is in your area, you'll need to consult with an experienced landlord-tenant lawyer who knows how this issue is handled by practitioners and judges.
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 with 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.
But keep in mind that if the landlord doesn’t agree to let you off the hook, you may 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 may sue you, probably in small claims court where the limit is $7,000 in Massachusetts.
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, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (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.