Here's a quick breakdown of answers to some of the most common questions about what happens when a lease is terminated.
As a general rule, a tenant is bound to the length of the lease unless the landlord significantly breaks the law or violates its terms—for example, by failing to make necessary repairs, or by failing to comply with an important lease clause.
A tenant who breaks a lease without good cause will be responsible for the remaining rent due under the lease term. In most states, however, a landlord has a legal duty to use reasonable efforts to mitigate their damages. This means that the landlord can't just sit back, allow the unit to remain empty, and expect to collect from the old tenant. Rather, the landlord must try to find a new tenant. Once a suitable replacement tenant is found, the landlord can't collect further from the old tenant. However, the landlord can seek from the old tenant the rent for the months the unit sat vacant, along with the amount of the landlord's reasonable expenses for rerenting the unit (such as advertisement costs).
Some states have laws that allow tenants to break a lease without liability for future rent in certain circumstances, such as:
Before you move out for any of these reasons, check your state laws to see if you'll be off the hook for rent. Also, be sure to follow any required procedures for taking advantage of these renter protections. For example, although many states allow victims of domestic violence to break a lease early, many require the tenant to provide evidence of their situation.
A landlord may legally terminate a lease when a tenant fails to pay rent or breaks a significant lease term, such as keeping a dog in violation of a no-pets clause in the lease, substantially damaging the property, or participating in illegal activities on or near the premises, such as selling drugs.
A landlord must first send the tenant a notice stating that the tenancy has been terminated. State laws set out very detailed requirements as to how a landlord must write and deliver (serve) a termination notice. Depending on what the tenant has done wrong, the termination notice may state that the tenancy is over and warn the tenant that they must vacate the premises or face an eviction lawsuit (this is called an unconditional notice to quit). Or, the notice might give the tenant a few days to clean up their act—for example, to pay the rent (a "notice to pay rent or quit"), or to find a new home for the dog.
If the tenant fixes the problem or leaves as directed, no one goes to court. If a tenant doesn't comply with the termination notice, the landlord can file a lawsuit to evict the tenant.
Note that if the rental is in a state or area with rent control, the rent control laws will govern when a landlord can legally terminate a lease.
For a comprehensive legal and practical guide for landlords, see Nolo's Every Landlord's Legal Guide.
Landlords may make deductions from a tenant's security deposit, provided they do it correctly and for an allowable reason. Many states require landlords to provide a written itemized accounting of deductions for unpaid rent and for repairs for damages and necessary cleaning that exceed normal wear and tear, together with payment for any deposit balance.
Each state sets its own laws about how long landlords have to return or account for the use of a security deposit. Usually, landlords must return any remaining security deposit within 14 to 30 days after the tenant moves out (regardless of whether they move out either voluntarily or by eviction).
If a tenant causes damage mid-tenancy, a landlord usually can use money from the security deposit to fix the issue, and then require the tenant to replenish the deposit.