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 Missouri State 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 significant other. Sometimes, you might 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 Missouri 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 Missouri must follow specific procedures to end the tenancy. For example, your landlord must give you a demand to pay the rent or leave before filing an eviction lawsuit. (Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 535.020, 535.060 (2022).) If you have used the premises for the sale or distribution of controlled substances, your landlord may give you an unconditional quit notice, giving you 10 days to move out. (Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 441.020, 441.040 (2022).)
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.
Missouri law doesn't make it easy for tenants to break the lease or withhold rent. Instead, in most situations, when a landlord breaches the lease, the tenant must continue to pay rent while pursuing a lawsuit against the landlord. The main exception to this rule in Missouri is when the lease specifically states that the tenant can break the lease as a remedy to the landlord's bad behavior—a very rare situation. Another exception might be when the landlord has "constructively evicted" the tenant.
Missouri law allows a tenant to stop paying rent and move out when a landlord has constructively evicted them. A constructive eviction in Missouri occurs when the landlord, by wrongful conduct or by failing to fulfill duties required under the lease, substantially interferes with the tenant's enjoyment of the rental. Even when a Missouri lease doesn't specify that the landlord will provide safe and livable premises, the promise is implied in the lease, and is known in legalese as the "implied warranty of habitability." (King v. Moorehead, 495 S.W.2d 65 (Mo.App. 1973).)
Constructive eviction could take many forms: a landlord who enters the rental without permission, for example, or a landlord who fails to repair a serious defect that poses a health and safety concern. However, if you think that your Missouri landlord has done something that qualifies as constructive eviction, you should consider contacting a lawyer. Proving constructive eviction can be difficult, and if you move out and a judge decides that the landlord's actions didn't rise to the level of constructive eviction, you could be responsible for back rent and other penalties—and have an eviction on your record that could make finding a rental in the future difficult.
Under Missouri law, if a landlord removes a tenant's property or locks them out of a rental without judicial process and a court order, the landlord is guilty of forcible entry and detainer. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 441.233(1) (2022).) However, a tenant's remedy in this situation isn't to withhold rent or move out—instead, the tenant must sue the landlord in court.
If a tenant can prove a landlord is guilty of forcible detainer, the tenant might be able to receive monetary compensation for any out-of-pocket costs or damage to the tenant's property. The court might also require the landlord to pay "punitive" damages—basically an amount of money intended to punish the landlord if the landlord acted in a willful and malicious way.
Another situation where Missouri landlords might be found guilty of forcible entry and detainer is when they turn off essential services—such as electric, gas, water, or sewer service—to the rental. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 441.233 (2022).)
Similar to what happens when a landlord wrongfully locks a tenant out (see discussion above), the tenant might be able to recover monetary compensation for any out-of-pocket costs or damage to the tenant's property. Although the law is unsettled on this point, if the landlord has willingly and maliciously turned off the utilities, a judge might also award punitive damages to the tenant.
If you enter active military service after signing a lease, you have a right to break the lease under federal law. (Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, 50 U.S.C.A. § 3955 (2022).) 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. State rules might also affect rights of tenants to break a lease in order to serve in the military.
If you don't have a legal justification to break your lease, you'll still be responsible for the balance of the rent due under the lease term. However, if you have given the landlord a security deposit (under Missouri law, not to exceed two months' rent), and if the landlord uses the deposit to cover some or all of that future rent, the landlord needs to take steps to try to find a replacement tenant. In legalese, the landlord must "mitigate damages," or lessen your responsibility for the balance of the rent. As soon as a new tenant begins paying rent, your responsibility ends. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 535.300 (2022).)
In theory, a landlord who decides not to use the security deposit can decide to return the deposit and sue the departed tenant for the entire rent due under the lease, without taking steps to find a replacement tenant for the balance of the term. But in practice, few landlords will return a pile of money, leave a unit vacant, and file a lawsuit at the end of the lease term, hoping to find the original tenant and hoping that the tenant has the funds to pay a judgment. Most landlords will use the deposit and take steps to re-rent, mindful of the danger of keeping a unit vacant and of the hassle and risk of future lawsuits.
Your landlord must look for a replacement tenant reasonably quickly, but does not need to relax their rental standards—to re-rent below fair market value or to tenants with poor credit, for example. Your landlord can also recover legitimate expenses like advertising costs. But beyond forfeiting your deposit, you'll be responsible only for the (hopefully brief) period the unit sits vacant. The bad news is that if the landlord can't find an acceptable tenant, you will be liable for paying rent for the remainder of your lease term.
If you didn't pay a deposit or your deposit is insufficient to cover damages you caused or past-due rent, your landlord can wait until your lease ends and sue you for the total amount of lost rent. This could be a substantial amount depending on the length of your lease. Your landlord may sue you in Missouri small claims court where the limit is $5,000. Because most landlords typically require security deposits and use deposits to cover future unpaid rent, your landlord will likely choose to mitigate.
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 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 Ann O'Connell (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.