by Harry Anthony Heist
Jan. 2, 2017 — Every landlord will eventually experience the situation in which the tenant wishes to break a lease due to a family, medical or work issue. Under Florida law, unless the lease specifically has a clause or clauses allowing a tenant to be released if a particular event occurs, the tenant will be held to the lease. In reality, the tenant will most likely walk out on the lease anyway, but may be still obligated to you under the terms of the agreement. The question then remains, what will a judge say in court?
The medical lease break
Florida law does not allow a tenant to break a lease due to a medical condition, either preexisting or new, although you may want to allow the tenant to break the lease without penalty in certain circumstances. There are many elderly tenants in Florida who cannot complete their lease terms due to having to be placed in an assisted care facility. Other tenants may have a serious sickness which requires long-term care or some condition which does not permit them to reside on the premises on their own. We recommend that with verification from a physician, you allow individuals to break their lease without penalty. If you were to decide to take the case to Small Claims Court, many judges would probably rule that due to the impossibility of the tenant to perform the lease obligations, through the judge's equitable powers, the tenant will be allowed to break the lease without penalty.
Disabilities and fair housing laws
In a hypothetical situation, a tenant tells you she can no longer climb the stairs in your building to her second floor apartment due to a disability, and you have no first floor apartments available. Should you allow her to break the lease without penalty? The law requires that you make a "reasonable accommodation" for the tenant. That might mean agreeing to let them transfer to a first floor unit when one becomes available, but it does not mean the tenant can escape the lease obligations altogether.
If a tenant anticipates prior to lease signing that they may have to terminate their lease early due to a medical condition, wording can be placed in the lease dealing with the terms and conditions of what will be a mutual termination of the lease. We recommend that you ask your attorney to draw up a clause which can be placed in the special stipulation section of the lease to accomplish the wishes of all parties. Keep in mind that a short statement like "Tenant may terminate the lease early if they must go to an assisted care facility" is not specific enough, as it does not deal with monetary issues, notice issues and is open to interpretation.
The mutual termination of lease
In the event the landlord and tenant agree on a mutual termination of the lease, all terms and conditions should be memorialized in writing and signed by all parties. The security deposit, last month's rent and any other monetary sums should be completely dealt with to effectuate a clean break with no misunderstandings.
Consistency and policy
Feeling sympathetic to one tenant's situation can result in accommodating that one tenant. The problem is knowing where to draw the line. Another tenant may have a slightly different issue, and you might be less apt to oblige. Can this trigger some sort of a discrimination action? Absolutely. If you are going to allow lease breaks for medical situations, we recommend you decide on criteria and place these criteria in your Procedures Manual. Yes, we know most of you do not have a Procedures Manual, and now is the time to start thinking about having one!
Harry Anthony Heist is a partner in the law offices of Heist, Weisse & Wolk, P.A., which concentrates on property management-related legal issues.
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