Legal Matters: Better understanding rental contracts

“We didn’t pay the rent this month because we’re moving,” a tenant reported over the phone.

We will get to law and terms of leases, but even without legal information, we can reason this out using simple fairness. For a contract, such as a rental agreement, to be legally binding, each party must give something and each must receive something.


In rental contracts, the landlord gives the use of his property, the apartment or house. He gets rent payments for providing use of the property. The tenant gives monthly rent payments. She gets a place to live and keep her belongings.

Part of the month of July had already gone by at the time the tenant spoke. She was still living in the apartment. She was getting a place to live, but the landlord was not getting rent payment. Terms of the contract were not being honored by one party.

The rental agreement may spell out at what point rent is considered overdue and what steps a landlord may take to enforce the agreement. If the agreement covers overdue rent and enforcement, the tenant will know where she stands regarding the final month rent payment.

If the agreement does not cover overdue rent, the landlord still has the right to go to court to enforce the contract and require the tenant to pay.

If the tenant and the landlord have agreed that her security deposit will apply to the final month’s rent, assuming no breakage or other expense that the security deposit would be needed to cover, and if she has given proper notice of her intent to move, she may not have to make additional payments out of pocket.

A security deposit can be used to cover failure to pay rent, damages to the property or expense incurred by the landlord due to a breach of the lease. State law requires the landlord to give a receipt for the security deposit.

A landlord may agree to prorate the rent on the month the tenant moves out, perhaps charging half the rent if she moves out by the 15th of the month. Terms such as a rent reduction should be included in the written lease.

But if there is no agreement to apply the security deposit toward rent or reduce the charge for the final month, and the landlord can file in court for payment of rent due, court costs and the right to repossess the property.

If the court enters a judgment in favor of the landlord, ruling that the tenant does in fact owe the rent she failed to pay, the tenant is required to vacate the apartment, usually within four days. If the tenant fails to move out within the required time, the landlord can ask the court for a warrant of restitution, allowing the landlord to repossess the property and move the tenant’s belongings out into the street under supervision of the sheriff’s department.