Tenants and Subtenants Obligations under a Sublease Agreement

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From finding a new job in another state to returning home to care for a sick family member to taking the big step of moving in with a new partner, many people find themselves in a situation where they need to cancel their existing lease so they can move somewhere else. Unfortunately, many landlords are reluctant to cancel existing leases, since that puts them in the position of potentially losing money while they look for a new tenant to fill the space. However, there is a solution that is workable for tenants while also being amenable to many landlords: a Sublease Agreement, also known as a sublet. There are many misconceptions about how subleases work and the responsibilities of people involved. This guide will walk through the most important terms to know and the main issues to be aware of when creating a sublease arrangement:

1. Differences between a sublease and an assignment

2. How to get permission from a landlord to sublet

3. Responsibilities and liabilities of the tenant and subtenant

4. Protective measures for the tenant

5. Sublease alternatives

Key terms and definitions

There are many terms used in subleasing that are often used interchangeably and in confusing ways. However, the key distinction is between subleases and assignments. Both of these can be easily created, but have different legal implications and responsibilities for the involved parties that will be explored further in this guide.

What is a "sublease"?

A Sublease Agreement involves a transfer of less than all of the lease. For example, if a person living alone in a leased two bedroom apartment decides to rent out the spare bedroom to a new roommate, that would be a sublease. Or, if a person rents their whole apartment to someone for a couple of months while they travel for the Summer, but then return to the apartment in the Fall, that would also be considered a sublease. The main parties involved in a sublease are:

1. the original tenant, also known as the sublessor, who is the person who first rented the property and plans to rent the space to a new renter, and

2. the subtenant, also known as the sublessee, who is the person who rents their property from the sublessor.

What is an "assignment"?

An Assignment Agreement involves the entire remainder of the lease being transferred to a new tenant. For example, if someone was required to move to a new state for their job and a new tenant takes over the remaining six months on their lease, that would be called an assignment. The main parties involved in an assignment are:

1. the assignor, who is the person who originally rented the property, and

2. the assignee, who is the person renting the property from the assignor and taking over the remainder of their lease.

Obtaining landlord permission

The first, and most important step, in arranging a sublease or assignment agreement is getting permission from the landlord. The landlord must consent to the arrangement and put this consent in writing using a Consent to Sublease form. If a tenant does not get the consent of the landlord, they leave both themselves and their subtenant or assignee in danger. The landlord would have the option of evicting the tenant, in the case of a sublease, or evicting the assignee, in the case of an assignment, for violation of the original lease agreement. Further, the landlord would feel less obligated to correct defects with the property, such as fixing leaky faucets or broken appliances, given that they do not have a valid agreement with the subtenant or assignee to provide these services.

Unless it says otherwise, when the lease prohibits tenants from subletting or assigning without their landlord's consent, ordinarily the landlord can arbitrarily refuse to permit a sublease or assignment according to their own discretion. However, some states and many leases now provide that the landlord must not unreasonably refuse to give consent to a sublease or assignment. In these instances, if the tenant is able to find a new person who will be at least as good a tenant -- able to pay rent on time, not play the stereo too loud, and follow the other agreements in the lease -- the landlord must accept that person as a subtenant.

If a person's lease prohibits them from assigning the lease without permission from the landlord but does not mention anything about subletting, would that person still be able to sublet the apartment to their friend? Yes, if the lease states only that an assignment is forbidden, the person would still be able to sublet their apartment. Conversely, if the lease prohibits only subletting, the tenant would be able to assign the lease without their landlord's approval. Both actions are prohibited only if the lease says that the tenant cannot sublease the property OR assign the lease without the landlord's consent. Note, however, that some cities, such as New York, have ordinances regulating subleases that take precedence over private agreements.

Tenants and subtenants responsibilities and liabilities

When subleasing an apartment, the original tenant should try their best to find a person who they think is trustworthy and will continue to pay the rent. The main reason for doing this is that the original tenant remains responsible for making sure the rent gets paid. The subtenant usually does not have to answer to the landlord, only the original tenant; the landlord can generally only sue the original tenant for the rent. If the subtenant does not pay the rent on time, the landlord can start eviction proceedings against the original tenant. If the subtenant owes several months of back rent, the original tenant is responsible for making sure it is paid. In the same way, the original tenant is responsible for making sure the rental is in good shape even if they are not currently living there.

What can a tenant do if they end up paying for the outstanding rent or damage a subtenant did to the property? The tenant can then go to the subtenant to ask that they be reimbursed for this money and take them to small claims court if they refuse to pay.

Unlike in a sublease, in an assignment, if the assignee fails to pay the rent, the landlord can go directly after the assignee for the unpaid rent. The landlord can also sue the assignee for any damage to the apartment that they are responsible for. Be aware, however, that the landlord can still sue the assignor, or original tenant, as well, even if the landlord consented to the assignment. The landlord has their choice of who to go to when they are looking to get paid.

Protecting the tenant from sublease pitfalls

Before subleasing a property or assigning a lease, the original tenant should make sure their subtenant or assignee is a responsible person who will pay the rent on time and will not damage the apartment. In a sublease or assignment, the original tenant essentially steps into the role of landlord to their subtenant or assignee. Therefore, it's important for them to protect themselves the same way a landlord would. When entering into sublease or assignment agreements, the original tenant often puts protective measures in place, including requiring payment of a security deposit, often equal to at least one month's rent, and putting the terms and agreements of the sublease in writing, including details like the length of the sublease or assignment, the amount of rent, when and to whom it must be paid, late charges, payment for damages, and so on.

Since the original tenant is acting as a landlord when subleasing, they are bound by some of the same laws that apply to the landlord. For example, each state has different rules and guidelines about the maximum amount that may be charged for a security deposit. In most cases, the original tenant may not reenter the property without giving appropriate notice to the subtenant. However, particular to assignments, those agreements often include a provision that the original tenant has the right to reenter the property and retake possession of it if the assignee fails to pay the rent. This gives the assignor some additional protection if the assignee defaults on the lease.

Putting the agreement in writing

Once all parties, including the original tenant, subtenant, and landlord agree to the sublease or assignment, it should be put in writing. A written agreement works to protect all of the parties and their rights and obligations under the lease agreement. An oral agreement is enforceable in some states, but in all cases is subject to potential misunderstandings and challenges in court. A written Lease Assignment Agreement is usually relatively brief since it incorporates all of the provisions included in the original Residential Lease Agreement or Commercial Lease Agreement. A Sublease Agreement is more extensive and includes specifics related to when and to whom rent payments will be made, whether the subtenant will pay a security deposit to the original tenant and if so the method and amount of that payment, who will receive notices related to the rental. Once a Sublease Agreement or Lease Assignment Agreement has been put into writing, it should be signed by all involved parties. The Agreement must always be signed by the tenant and subtenant or assignee. However, the document may also be signed by the landlord to serve as a written record that the landlord grants their permission and is aware of the arrangement.

Alternatives to subleasing

What if a tenant must move out of their rental property for some reason, say, six months before the lease expires, but they don't want to worry about the potential hassle and risk of finding a subtenant or assignee? The lease may give the tenant the right to cancel their lease by giving a certain amount of notice, usually two to three months. In a month-to-month lease, the tenant usually must give only thirty days notice. If the lease does not allow for this, the tenant has the option of finding a new tenant, subject to their landlord's approval, and the tenant's own trouble and expense. When the tenant finds a suitable person, they can ask their landlord to sign a document releasing them from their original lease. The landlord will then have the new tenant pay a deposit and sign a new lease. If the landlord agrees to do this, the original tenant will no longer be liable for the rent or acts of the new tenant. This solution is often acceptable to reasonable landlords.

Final takeaways

Subleasing can be a great option for someone looking to move somewhere else, either temporarily or permanently, while they are in the middle of their current lease term. Here are the most important things to remember when setting up a sublease or assignment agreement:

  • A sublease is a transfer of less than all of the lease; an assignment is a transfer of the entire remainder of the lease.
  • The landlord must grant their permission for the sublease or assignment in writing if the tenant wants to protect themselves from future liability.
  • In a sublease, the landlord can only go after the original tenant for rent or damages owed by the subtenant; in an assignment, the landlord can go after either the original tenant or the assignee.
  • The original tenant can use measures such as collecting a security deposit to protect themselves in case the subtenant or asignee fails to pay the rent or causes damages.
  • The best way to protect all involved parties is to put the agreement in writing.

About the Author: Malissa Durham is a Legal Templates Programmer and Attorney at Wonder.Legal and is based in the U.S.A.

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