All leases, whether written or oral, last only for a specific period of time, such as one month or one year. This article explains four 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 what happens if you do need to move before your lease ends for a reason not accepted by the law. Third, it explains that the law says you can break your lease and move if the landlord refuses to repair very serious defects in your rental unit. Fourth, it discusses other situations when the law says a tenant has the right to break a lease, including if the tenant dies or becomes disabled, or is a victim of domestic violence, or is a senior and needs to move into a nursing home or low-income housing.
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, unless the landlord has other legal grounds to evict you, the only reason for a landlord to end your old lease is so that he can 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 need or 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 even if you move out on June 30th.
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
Under the law in New Jersey, tenants are allowed to break their leases in certain cases, such as when the apartment is in very bad condition. These cases are described in Moving out because of very bad conditions. Sometimes tenants move out for reasons that are not accepted by the law, even though they may be very important to the tenants. Reasons not accepted by the law include thing like moving to be near a new job, or getting a divorce, or moving back to your home town to care for a family member. While your landlord cannot stop anyone from moving, the landlord may be able to sue you for money if break your lease and leave.
Can tenants be sued for breaking a lease?
If you move out before the end of the lease for a reason not accepted by the law, 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. Reasons not accepted by the law include thing like moving to be near a new job, or getting a divorce, or just wanting to move back to your home town.
For example, if you move out during July because you got a new job, 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). If the landlord does not do this, the landlord cannot make the tenant pay for any months left on the lease.
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 unless you voluntarily agree to pay to rent so you can stay. But if you already leave or have left, 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 very 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 that the conditions are very bad. 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 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 if you have trouble walking, 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 of a tenant or a tenant's spouse
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'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. 46:8-9.1.
Note: 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.
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 with the following information: (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. 46:8-9.2(a).
Senior tenants needing to go to a nursing home or assisted living facility
The law permits senior tenants (people 62 year old or older) to break their leases if they have to move to move into a nursing home or an assisted living facility or a continuing care retirement community. To break your lease under these circumstances, the tenant must give the landlord written notice in advance. The notice must contain (1) a statement from the tenant's physician that the tenant needs the services provided by such a facility, and (2) a statement showing that the tenant has been accepted into such a facility Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-9.2 (b).
Senior tenants accepted into subsidized housing or other low and moderate income housing
Senior tenants (people 62 year old or older) who are not living in low or moderate income housing can break their leases if they have been accepted into subsidized housing or other housing for low and moderate income people. To break your lease under these circumstances, the tenant must give the landlord written notice in advance. Attached to the notice must be a written statement that shows that the tenant has been accepted into such housing and intends to move there. CITE: N.J.S.A. 46:8-9.2(c).
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 at the landlord's expense and that the landlord was unable or unwilling to do so. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-9.2 (d).
Domestic violence victims have the right to move
The New Jersey Safe Housing Act is a law that allows domestic violence victims and/or their children who are tenants to end their lease before it is over. The purpose of the law is to help victims who are tenants find safe, long-term housing. Cite: N.J.S.A 46:8-9.4.
Tenants must give written notice to the landlord
Under the law, a tenant must give the landlord written notice to end a lease early. The lease will then end 30 days after the landlord receives this notice. You are required to pay the rent until this 30th day. The notice must tell the landlord that:
- Staying in the leased apartment or building will cause the victim/tenant or tenant's child or any child to face an immediate threat of serious physical harm from another person. For the purposes of this law, the definition of domestic violence has been expanded to include a threat against any child. The child does not have to be a child born to the victim and the abuser.
- The threat of serious physical harm comes from a specific person. (Tenants may not end a lease based on a general threat.) For example, this requirement would be met if the abuser knows where the victim lives and there has been a previous incident of domestic violence (even if it did not occur at the leased location).
The written notice must include other evidence of the threat
The victim/tenant must send other evidence (proof) of the threat with the written notice ending the lease. The other evidence should show the reasons the victim/tenant is facing an immediate threat of serious physical harm. The following documents are examples of acceptable evidence of the threat:
- A certified (official) copy of a final (not a temporary) restraining order based on the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act protecting the victim/tenant from the same abusive person named in the written notice
- A certified copy of a final restraining order from another jurisdiction (state or country) based on the domestic violence law of that other jurisdiction protecting the victim/tenant from the same abusive person named in the written notice
- A law enforcement agency record (such as a police report) documenting the domestic violence or certifying (officially stating) that the victim/tenant or child of the tenant is a victim of domestic violence
- The notes or reports of a doctor or nurse or other health care provider from a hospital or emergency room or private medical office describing injuries from the domestic violence
- A written certification (official statement) from a certified Domestic Violence Specialist or the director of a designated (officially recognized) domestic violence agency stating that the tenant or a child of the tenant is a victim of domestic violence
- Other documentation or certification from a licensed social worker that the tenant or a child of the tenant is a victim of domestic violence.
The documents that a victim/tenant sends with the written notice to the landlord are very important. Please note that:
- Any restraining order sent must be a final restraining order (FRO). A temporary restraining order (TRO) by itself is not enough, although a TRO sent with other acceptable documentation may help.
- The people who write reports or letters should state the reasons they are qualified to write the reports.
- The report or letter should explain what the person is relying on in order to talk about the victim of domestic violence. For example, the writers should mention any in-person meeting or any other documents that were reviewed.
It is recommended that the tenant be connected with their county domestic violence agency. For a list of these agencies, see the appendix of our handbook, Domestic Violence: A Guide to the Legal Rights of Domestic Violence Victims in New Jersey.
When will the lease end?
Thirty days after the landlord receives the notice and other documents, the lease will end and the victim/tenant may stop paying rent. The victim/tenant must pay rent until that 30th day.
If there are other tenants on the lease, the other tenants' lease also ends. The other tenants may enter into a new lease if the landlord chooses. The other tenants should not be removed from the home unless the landlord has good cause under landlord/tenant laws.
What about my security deposit?
If you end your lease and leave, the New Jersey Safe Housing Act states that the landlord must return your security deposit within 15 days after you are out. The law allows the landlord to keep part of the deposit if you damaged the apartment or owe rent. The landlord must send a notice to your last known address within three business days after you leave to let you know where you can go to get your deposit back. If the landlord has kept some of the deposit money, the written notice must also tell you why. If you do not agree with the reasons the landlord gives for keeping some of the deposit, you may sue the landlord in small claims court for two times the amount the landlord kept, plus any fees you pay if you have to hire an attorney to help you. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1.
What if I live in public housing?
If you live in public housing, or some other building that is subsidized, or have a Housing Choice voucher (also called a Section 8 voucher), you may have to take steps in order to end a lease.
- Give proper notice. The first step you should take is to look at your lease and see what it says about any notices you need to give to the Housing Authority or landlord if you want to get out of your lease. There is also a federal law, called the Violence Against Women Act, which can help you if you live in public or subsidized housing or have a voucher. Cite: P.L. 109-162.
- Get the Housing Authority to help you. The Housing Authority may evict the abuser and let you stay. Another step the Housing Authority or the landlord can take if you are in danger of being harmed by the abuser is to move you to another apartment. If you have a voucher, you may use the New Jersey Safe Housing Act to end your lease and move to another house or apartment. The Housing Authority in charge of your voucher should help you do this.
Whether you live in public housing or subsidized housing or have a voucher, one of the most important things you will need is some proof that you are a victim of domestic violence. The same kind of proof that is needed under the New Jersey Safe Housing Act should be enough. (This proof is described above.)
Personal information must be kept confidential
To be successful and end a lease under this law, you will have to reveal very personal information about your situation. The New Jersey Safe Housing Act requires that landlords and/or municipal clerks must keep it private and confidential. They are prohibited from revealing any information about the domestic violence. Landlords are also specifically prohibited from entering the information into any shared database, such as one that would be available to tenant screening companies or other agencies that generate tenant screening reports. The law does, however, allow the landlord to use the information with your consent, if necessary for a future court proceeding about the tenancy.