A lease is a contract between the landlord and tenant, in which the tenant promises to abide by the rental terms, including paying the rent, and the landlord agrees to maintain the property and otherwise abide by federal, state, and local laws concerning rental property. As long as both sides do their part, the tenant has the right and responsibility to stay until the date the lease ends, and the landlord has the right and duty to continue renting to the tenant.
Sometimes, however, leases end early, either by mutual agreement between landlord and tenant, or because a state or federal law excuses one or the other from staying with the lease until its ending date, or because one party has not lived up to an important term in the lease or a legal responsibility. The first two reasons occur with some regularity, but unfortunately, the majority of early lease endings result from one side or the other not living up to its terms or the law.
In spite of both parties' intention to honor the lease until its ending date, sometimes circumstances change that make ending the lease sooner a good idea. For example, a tenant may need to move for a job change, school plans, or because she just can't afford the rent any more. A landlord might find that he needs to move back into the rental property, or that a relative needs to occupy it. In these circumstances, landlords and tenants often let each other out of their promise to honor the lease through its ending date, though they're not legally required to do so. Sometimes money changes hands (this is known as a "buy-out"), which is perfectly okay.
When landlords and tenants amicably decide to end a lease early, they ought to formally terminate it. This can be done by simply writing "Terminated on [date]" on each page of the lease, and having everyone sign and date their signature. At that point, the landlord should consider the rental at an end, and follow regular state procedures for returning the security deposit.
Tenants may be able to end a lease early by invoking their rights under certain federal, state, or local laws. These laws trump the ending date of the lease.
The most widespread law is the federal Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act, which gives active duty military and other specified federal employees the right to end a lease when they are transferred to another location. The transfer must be for a period of 90 days or more. Under the law, once the tenant gives notice to the landlord, the tenant's lease terminates one month after the date that rent is next due.
Many state laws give elderly or seriously sick tenants the ability to get out of a lease when they have the ability to enter a nursing home or other care facility.
State laws also address situations when the rental property has been destroyed. If the destruction is total or near-total, tenants may consider the lease to be at an end (though they typically cannot recoup pre-paid rent).
The most common instance of early lease-ending happens when either the landlord or tenant fails to live up to a clause in the lease, or breaks a law that entitles the other side to call it quits.
When tenants fail to pay rent, disregard a lease clause (such as having a pet in a no-pets rental), bring in an unauthorized occupant, or sublet without consent, chances are they are breaking a lease clause. Most of the time, one serious violation, or several repeated violations, will enable the landlord to consider the lease to have been broken, which justifies a termination notice from the landlord. Sometimes tenants have a chance to save their tenancy by "curing" the violation (by paying the rent within a specified time, or getting rid of the pet), but not always—in many situations, the landlord can declare the lease to be over with an "unconditional quit" notice.
If the landlord decides to end the lease based on these violations, he cannot immediately go to court and file an eviction lawsuit. In every state, he must give tenants a notice to quit, giving them time to remedy the situation or leave (or to just leave, if he's delivered an unconditional quit notice), before he files for eviction. The amount of time the tenant has in which to cure the problem (or simply move out) varies from one day to thirty days, depending on the state and the reason for the termination.
Tenants who want to move out based on the landlord's failure to follow the lease should in most situations give their landlord notice of the problem and a reasonable amount of time in which to reform or fix the problem. If neither happens, the tenant can move out without responsibility for future rent.
Both landlords and tenants have legal responsibilities to each other that need not be written down in a lease. The most important ones are the landlord's responsibility to deliver and maintain "fit and habitable housing," which is the law in every state except Arkansas. In turn, tenants must take reasonable care of the property. When either side seriously fails to live up to their legal duties, the other can consider the failure to be a breach of the law, and declare the lease to be at an end.
Care of the rental property is not the only duty imposed by law. For example, landlords must not unreasonably interfere with their tenants' privacy; and tenants must not engage in illegal activities on the premises.
As with endings that result from a failure to follow a lease clause, endings that flow from not following the law must usually be announced with a termination notice (from the landlord), or a notice-and-cure period (from the tenant). When the violation involves a criminal act, the amount of time in which to move out is typically very short.
When landlords or tenants believe that they are justified in declaring the lease to be over, they must be very sure that federal, state, or local law covers their situation. Breaking a lease without legal justification can result in being held responsible for the rent for the balance of the term (tenants), or damages to tenants who incur costs when they have to move out early (landlords). For this reason, it's very important to be familiar with relevant landlord-tenant laws before taking this step.