When two or more people sign a lease or rental agreement, they become cotenants. Most of the time, all cotenants are jointly and severally liable for paying rent and fulfilling the terms of the tenancy. This means that a landlord can seek the total amount of rent from any of the cotenants, and each cotenant must keep the promises in the lease or rental agreement—even if the others don’t.
A cotenant in a month-to-month tenancy who wants to leave is legally responsible for giving the landlord proper written notice and paying rent through the end of the notice period. A more complicated situation arises, though, when cotenants have signed a lease, and one of them wants to leave before the end of the term. Ideally, the cotenants have a roommate agreement in place that discusses how to handle the situation. Usually, it’s best for a cotenant leaving early to get permission from the landlord to break the lease or assign the remainder of the lease term to an acceptable replacement. But what do you do when a cotenant simply breaks the lease and leaves?
The unauthorized departure of a cotenant gives the landlord the option of ending the tenancy altogether—even if the remaining cotenants can still pay the rent. The landlord may terminate the tenancy because even one cotenant’s leaving early violates the lease: All cotenants named in the lease agreed to stay in the rental for a certain amount of time.
In practice, however, landlords often allow the other cotenants to stay when they continue to pay rent on time and maintain the other promises in the lease. So, if you want to stay after one cotenant breaks the lease, the landlord will probably not terminate the tenancy unless:
It’s possible that your landlord only agreed to rent to you in the first place because of the fact you were renting with the (now gone) cotenant who had great income and credit scores. Your landlord might be willing to let you stay if you agree to promptly bring in a law- and lease-abiding new cotenant who meets the landlord’s financial requirements. In the meantime, you might need to ask your landlord for permission to pay the rent late or in installments.
Always get your landlord's approval before moving in a new roommate. If a cotenant takes off and leaves you responsible for paying the entire rent, you might be tempted to simply move in another roommate, bypassing the landlord's application process. Don't! Your lease or rental agreement probably prohibits unauthorized assignments or subleases. If it does, bringing in a new tenant—even a great one—without your landlord's okay gives your landlord grounds to terminate your tenancy and even evict you. Instead, get your landlord's written approval to add a roommate to your lease or rental agreement.
If your cotenant skips out, you might decide that you’d rather leave than try to cover rent on your own or find a new roommate.
Even though your roommate might be out of the picture, it’s in your best interest to keep up your end of the lease or rental agreement. Breaking your end of the bargain can result in the landlord keeping your security deposit, reporting you to credit bureaus, and even suing you for remaining unpaid rent and other damages. Do what you can to avoid these serious consequences:
Before you move, be extra accommodating when your landlord shows the unit to prospective renters. Facilitating a quick re-rental is not just a courtesy—it can work to your advantage as well. The sooner a new tenant takes over, the sooner your liability for the balance of the rent due under the lease ends. Alternatively, you could offer to find an acceptable replacement tenant yourself. No matter what, remove all your personal belongings from the rental and leave it in a clean, well-maintained condition.
When a cotenant leaves early, you should take measures to protect your rights and interests. For instance, you’ll want to do what you can to recover unpaid rent or pay for damage the cotenant left behind.
If your roommate gives you notice of a planned departure, or if you’re still on good terms, try to enter into a written agreement about how your living arrangements will end. For example, an agreement might state that the departing cotenant:
But what the departing roommate is long gone or shows no signs of cooperating with you? Suing your former cotenant and then attempting to collect the judgment might be more trouble than it’s worth—especially when you don’t have a forwarding address.
On the other hand, if your ex-roommate is still in town and has a source of income, consider taking the time to sue in small claims court for unpaid rent, damage to the rental unit, unpaid utilities, and your costs to find a replacement cotenant, such as advertising. Then, if necessary, you can collect what you won in court by garnishing your ex-cotenant’s wages or attaching certain accounts.
If you need assistance with handling a cotenant’s departure, consider consulting a local landlord-tenant attorney.