A lease is a contract, and contracts are not designed to be broken without serious justification. Generally, tenants can only break a lease if they've reached an agreement with their landlord. But there are a handful of situations in which the law allows a tenant to terminate a lease without approval—such as when a service member is entering active duty.
Although many states have similar laws regarding lease breaks, there is some variation. (Florida is one of the few places that doesn't allow victims of domestic violence to break their lease, for instance.) Choose your state from the dropdown menu at the top of this page for more detailed information about the laws where you rent.
Lease-break clauses are allowed by many states
Lease-break clauses, which lay out the process for terminating a lease early (including how much notice a tenant must give and how much the landlord will charge in fees), are allowed in most states. However, the amount a landlord can charge in early termination fees is sometimes capped. In Florida, for instance, early termination fees are capped at two months’ rent. And in California, a landlord can’t charge a tenant more than their actual damages caused by the early move-out.
Tenants can terminate their lease if their rental unit is unsafe or unlivable
Across the country, tenants who want to break their lease because of unsafe or unlivable conditions are protected by the warranty of habitability and the covenant of quiet enjoyment. If a landlord’s failure to make repairs has caused the rental unit to become dangerous or uninhabitable, a tenant may be able to move out and claim constructive eviction. However, this is a complicated legal maneuver that should only be used as a last resort.
In some states, tenants who are physically threatened or attacked have additional protections. In Washington, for instance, if a tenant is threatened by their landlord or neighbor with a deadly weapon (and the incident results in an arrest), they can automatically break their lease.
Members of the military can break their lease
Anyone serving in the U.S. military can—according to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act—break a lease without being held responsible for lost rent or a lease break fee. This applies if a tenant is entering active duty for the first time or receives orders for a permanent change of station for 90 days or more. Certain states actually offer service members additional protection when it comes to breaking a lease early, including Texas and Florida.
Many states allow victims of domestic violence to break their leases
There’s no federal law protecting renters who are experiencing domestic violence or related crimes, like stalking or harassment. But many states—California, Washington, and Colorado among them—do allow these renters to break their leases without penalties. Tenants must follow the process outlined in the law to legally terminate their lease, which typically includes gathering documentation of at least one violent incident.
Some states allow elderly tenants to break their leases
It’s not very common, but there are a handful of states (including New York and New Jersey) that allow elderly tenants to break their lease without their landlord’s agreement—as long as they’re moving into a nursing home or the home of a relative. Sometimes, this requires a doctor’s note confirming that they can no longer live alone. Tenants who are experiencing deteriorating medical conditions may also be able to break their lease early under fair housing laws, as long as they are considered disabled under the federal Fair Housing Act.
Most landlords are required to mitigate damages if a tenant moves out early
In many states, a landlord is required to do whatever they can to minimize damages from a tenant’s early departure. In this case, “damages” generally means the rent payments remaining under the original lease. Damage mitigation can take two forms. If a tenant makes an effort to find a replacement tenant and presents them to the landlord, the landlord must accept them—unless there’s a commercially viable reason to reject them (for instance, they have terrible credit or a long history of evictions).
If a tenant doesn’t try and find a replacement tenant, however, a landlord still must make a good-faith effort to find a new tenant. Once they’ve found someone, the original tenant is no longer on the hook for any remaining rent payments. But damage mitigation doesn’t mean that a landlord is legally obligated to actually find a new tenant—they just have to make a reasonable effort to look for one.
Tenants and landlords can always negotiate ending a lease
There are a lot of reasons a tenant may want to break a lease, and many of them aren’t covered by the laws mentioned above. Maybe they got a new job, got married, or simply found a new apartment that works better for their needs. In these cases, the best way to end a lease is to reach out to a landlord and negotiate a termination.
Tenants should reach out to their landlord as soon as they think they may need to end a lease early. They should also work to find a replacement tenant who would be willing to sign a new lease. Landlords and tenants can also negotiate a lease break fee, if one is not included in the lease.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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