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Ending or Breaking Your Lease

All leases, whether written or oral, last only for a specific period of time, such as one month or one year. This section explains three things about ending or breaking leases. First, it explains how to end a lease so that you can move out when the lease period is up. Second, it explains the legal consequences of breaking your lease before your lease ends and when you can move because the landlord refuses to repair serious defects in your rental unit. Third, it discusses what happens to a lease when the tenant dies.

NOTE! Before you end or break a lease, you must understand a basic rule about landlord-tenant law in New Jersey. Because of the Anti-Eviction Act, you cannot be evicted simply because your lease ends. As explained in The Causes for Eviction, a tenant can only be evicted if the landlord can prove one of the good causes for eviction under the law. The ending or expiration of a lease is not a good cause for eviction. This means that, however long your lease, you do not have to move just because your lease has ended. It also means that, unless you or the landlord end your lease, all yearly leases and month-to-month leases automatically renew themselves. The only exception to this rule is if you live in a building with only two or three apartments and the landlord lives in one of the apartments.

Why end a lease?

Landlords and tenants have different reasons for wanting to end a lease. As stated above, a landlord cannot evict you just because your lease is over. Because of this, the only reason for a landlord to end your lease is to offer you a new lease with different terms, such as a higher rent or new rules and regulations. By ending your lease, the landlord cannot get you to move but can require you to pay more rent or to follow new rules.

On the other hand, tenants often want to end their leases because they want to move.

Notice to end a lease

To end a lease, either the tenant or the landlord must give the other a written notice before the end of the lease, stating that the lease will not be renewed. If this written notice is not given or is not given in the required time, then the lease will renew itself automatically, at least on a month-to-month basis, generally with the same terms and conditions. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-10.

Ending a yearly lease

To end a yearly lease, unless the lease says otherwise, you must give the landlord a written notice at least one full month before the end of the lease. The notice must tell the landlord that you are moving out when the lease ends. Also, unless the lease says otherwise, the landlord must give you at least one full month’s notice before the end of the lease to terminate a yearly lease so that the landlord can raise the rent or change other terms of the lease. Remember, you cannot be evicted just because the landlord ends your lease.

For example, if your yearly lease ends on June 30, you have to give the landlord a written notice before June 1 that you plan to terminate the lease on June 30. Failure to give the proper notice may result in the automatic creation of a month-to-month tenancy. In that case, you may be responsible for at least an additional month’s rent. In this example, your failure to give notice may allow the landlord to charge you for July’s rent and to subtract it from your security deposit.

If your lease or a notice from your landlord says that you must either sign a new lease by a certain date or else move out by the date your present lease expires, your failure to renew your lease will put the landlord on notice that you intend to move out at the end of the lease period. If you object to changes in the lease, let the landlord know. Lease changes must be reasonable. See The Causes for Eviction. If you then choose not to move out, you will become a month-to-month tenant. Cite: Kroll Realty v. Fuentes, 163 N.J. Super. 23 (App. Div. 1978) and Lowenstein v. Murray, 229 N.J. Super. 616 (Law Div. 1988). You will, however, be subject to eviction for refusing to sign a new lease.

Ending a month-to-month lease

To end a month-to-month lease, or any rental agreement that does not have a specific lease term, you must give a written one-month notice before the month starts. You can then move out at the end of the month. Cite: S. D. G. v. Inventory Control Co., 178, N.J. Super. 411 (App. Div. 1981); Harry’s Village, Inc. v. Egg Harbor Tp., 89 N.J. 576 (1982).

For example, say that you have a month-to-month lease, your rent is due the first of every month, and you want to move on June 30. You have to give the landlord a written notice before June 1 saying that you will be moving out as of June 30, and you will end your lease at that time.

Moving out before the lease ends

If you move out before the end of the lease, the landlord may be able to hold you responsible for the rent that becomes due until the apartment or house is rented again, or until the lease ends.

For example, if you move out during July and your lease ends on October 31, you could be held responsible for the rents of August, September, and October. But if another tenant moves in on September 1, then the landlord may sue you only for August’s rent. This does not apply if the landlord agrees in writing to let you move before the lease ends.

If a tenant moves out before the lease ends, the landlord must try to re-rent the apartment. This means that in order to recover rent for the months left on the lease, the landlord must prove that he or she tried to find another tenant but could not. The landlord must show, for example, that he or she immediately began advertising the apartment and interviewing tenants. Cite: Sommer v. Kridel, 74 N.J. 446 (1977).

Give advance notice to the landlord

Notify your landlord in writing as soon as you know that you will be moving out before the end of your lease term. Try to get your landlord’s written permission to break the lease. If your landlord refuses to give you permission and you know of people who are interested in your apartment, send their names in a letter to your landlord.

When your moving date arrives, remove all of your property from the unit and turn in the keys promptly to the landlord or superintendent. Try to have the landlord or superintendent sign a receipt for the keys, or take a friend to witness your surrender of the keys. After you move, check to see when your former apartment becomes occupied and at what rent.

You do not have to leave a forwarding address when you move. But if you want your security deposit back, you may have to give your old landlord your new address.

What if you decide not to move?

Tenants sometimes notify the landlord that they are moving because they have found another apartment that is more affordable or in better condition. What can you do if the new apartment becomes unavailable or some other problem comes up that makes the move impossible? If this happens, you do not have to move out just because you gave notice. There may be other financial consequences, however. If you are concerned, you should contact Legal Services or your state or local tenants association. However, your landlord can’t evict you simply because you did not leave when you said you would. Cite: Chapman Mobile Homes v. Huston, 226 N.J. Super. 405 (1988).

Claims for rent

Another important rule of New Jersey landlord-tenant law is that a landlord cannot collect rent or any money from you in a lawsuit to evict you under the Anti-Eviction Act. A successful suit for eviction can only give the landlord possession of the rental property. It cannot be combined with a claim for money. In order to sue you for rent because you broke your lease, or for damage to the apartment, the landlord must file a separate complaint for money damages, usually in Small Claims Court.

Moving out because of bad conditions

If your landlord refuses to make needed repairs to your apartment, you can move out before the lease ends and still not be held responsible for rent for the time left on the lease. It is important to have proof of the bad conditions. You can show proof by having a building inspection done and taking pictures before you move out. In this situation, the law holds the landlord responsible for breaking the lease by failing to fulfill his or her duty to provide you with safe and decent housing. This is called constructive eviction. Please read Your Right to Safe and Decent Housing section for an explanation of a landlord’s duty to maintain housing in good condition.

There are certain rules that apply for a constructive eviction:

  • You can break your lease under this rule if the conditions in your rental unit are so bad that it is very hard to live there. Examples of this are if you have no heat in the winter, or your health and safety are at risk. In addition, your landlord must have failed to correct the problem after receiving notice from you, which should be in writing if at all possible. Cite: Marini v. Ireland, 56 N.J. 130 (1970); C.F. Seabrook v. Beck, 174 N.J. Super. 577 (App. Div. 1980).

  • If you move because of bad conditions before your lease ends, your landlord may sue you for rent for the time left on the lease. The landlord will almost certainly refuse to return your security deposit. You may find yourself in court either because the landlord has sued you for back rent or because you are suing the landlord for the return of your security deposit. Whether you win or lose in court will depend on how serious the judge believes the conditions were that you claim forced you to move. Judges usually allow a tenant to break the lease only when very serious conditions exist, such as no heat, no water, a broken toilet, a broken elevator, flooding, or excessive and constant disturbances.

  • It is important that you give the landlord notice of the defective conditions and a reasonable amount of time to make repairs before moving out and claiming constructive eviction. Your notice should be in writing, and by certified mail, return receipt requested. Keep a copy of your notice.

  • If serious conditions in your apartment force you to move before the end of your lease, you are still entitled to have your security deposit returned to you.

Death or disability of a tenant or a tenant’s spouse

The law recognizes that death or serious illness often requires households to search for less expensive housing, including moving in with other family members. The law provides that any lease for one year or more may be ended before it expires if the tenant or the tenant’s spouse dies. The landlord must be given written notice of the lease termination by the tenant or the tenant’s executor or administrator, or the surviving spouse if the names of both spouses are on the lease. The lease termination becomes valid 40 days after the landlord receives written notice if (1) the rent owed up to that point has been paid; (2) the property is vacated at least five working days before the 40th day; and (3) the tenant’s lease does not prohibit early termination upon the tenant’s death. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-9.2.

Property tax rebate

When a lease is terminated because of the tenant’s death, any property tax rebate or credit due and owing to the tenant before the lease termination is to be paid to the executor or administrator of the tenant’s estate, or to the tenant’s surviving spouse. Any landlord who fails to do this becomes liable to the tenant’s estate or surviving spouse for twice the amount of the property tax rebate to which the tenant was entitled or $100, whichever is greater. Cite: N.J.S.A. 54:4-6.7; N.J.S.A. 54:4-6.11.

The lease may not survive the tenant’s death

If the person who signed the lease dies, a recent court decision says that the remaining members of the tenant household may not be protected by the Anti-Eviction Act. Cite: Maglies v. Estate of Guy, 386 N.J. Super. 449 (App. Div. 2006). This case was appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which has not yet made its decision. Check this Web site for updates on this issue.

Tenant illness or accident

Any lease for one or more years may be ended before it expires if the tenant or the tenant’s spouse becomes disabled due to an illness or accident. In such a case, the tenant or spouse must notify the landlord on a disability form available from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Call 1-609-633-6606 to request a copy. The form requires (1) a certification of a treating doctor that the tenant or spouse is unable to continue to work; (2) proof of loss of income; and (3) proof that any pension, insurance, or other assistance to which the tenant or spouse is entitled is not enough to pay the rent, even when added with other income. The lease termination becomes effective 40 days after the landlord receives the written notice. The property must also be vacated and possession returned to the landlord at least five days before the 40th day. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-9.1.

Housing that is not handicapped accessible

The law permits tenants who are disabled to break their lease if the landlord, after notice, has failed to make the dwelling unit handicapped accessible to the disabled tenant or a disabled member of the household. To break your lease under these circumstances, you must notify the landlord in advance, and the notice must contain (1) a statement from your physician that you are permanently disabled, and (2) a statement that you asked the landlord to make the house or apartment accessible.

For information about citations, and how to get more information about a particular law, see Finding the Law in the Landlord Tenant section.