If you have become physically or mentally disabled and are wondering whether you can get out of your lease due to your medical condition, you are in the right place.
In this article, I will be looking at whether you can break your lease in the event of disability and provide you with tips on how to do it.
To begin, I will include an overview of federal fair housing laws that deal with whether you can terminate your lease early due to your medical condition and what the requirements are to do that.
We’ll also look at the laws of major states like New York and California, so you can get a sampling of how some of the biggest jurisdictions have addressed this question. I also include a link to a 50 state housing laws page so you can look up the rules in your specific state.
Finally, I will also offer some great alternative options you can pursue if your medical condition does not rise to the level of a protected “disability” under the law.
We’ll get into all of that later on, but the short answer to the overall question is as follows:
As a general matter, you can break your lease due to disability if (i) your medical condition rises to the level of a legally recognized disability under applicable laws, (ii) you provide proof of your condition, and (iii) early termination of your lease is a reasonable accommodation for your disability.
Note: If you have a mental illness, I have written an article that is specific to that scenario, so check out my article on whether you can break your lease due to mental illness.
The information contained in this post is for informational purposes only. It is not legal advice. You should seek the advice of a qualified legal professional before making any decisions relating to the topics covered by this article.
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Can I Break My Lease If I Become Disabled?
Federal Fair Housing Laws
Federal nondiscrimination laws protect people with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act is one of those laws. It prohibits discrimination in housing because of disability and is the law that generally applies to private landlords.
Note for Nerds Like Me: The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) round out the main federal laws also dealing with anti-discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The ADA covers mostly public entities (not private landlords, except if they own or operate on places of public accommodation). Section 504 covers programs receiving federal financial assistance.
Since the Fair Housing Act will apply to most tenants, I will focus on that.
As mentioned, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination in housing because of disability . According to the Justice Department, a person has a protected disability under the FHA if they meet the following conditions:
A person has mental or physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities.
The term mental or physical impairment may include conditions such as blindness, hearing impairment, mobility impairment, HIV infection, mental retardation, alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic fatigue, learning disability, head injury, and mental illness.
The term major life activity may include seeing, hearing, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for one’s self, learning, speaking, or working. The Fair Housing Act also protects persons who have a record of such an impairment, or are regarded as having such an impairment.
If you have a qualifying disability, then landlords must make reasonable accommodations for you.
That may include terminating a lease if you are no longer able to function in a regular rental unit and need specialized care, for example. But every situation is different and your outcome will depend on your specific facts and circumstances.
Can I Break My Lease in New York Due to Disability?
Most states and local jurisdictions adopt some version of the federal fair housing laws. New York is no different.
Under the New York Human Rights Law, if you are disabled, then you can terminate your lease if a doctor certifies that you are no longer able to live independently in your premises due to your disability and require assistance with instrumental activities of daily living.
Under this New York law, if you want to break the lease, you must move in with a family member or to a qualified facility. Source.
As you would expect, you need to provide at least 30 days notice to your landlord and proof of (i) your qualifying medial condition and (ii) upcoming relocation to a permitted location.
Can I Break My Lease in California Due to Disability?
Disabled California tenants are entitled to similar protections under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. Like federal and New York law, California law protects against discrimination due to both physical and mental disabilities.
California defines physical disability as follows:
“Physical disability,” includes, but is not limited to, having any anatomical loss, cosmetic disfigurement, physiological disease, disorder or condition that does both of the following:
(A) affects one or more of the following body systems: neurological; immunological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genitourinary; hemic and lymphatic; circulatory; skin; and endocrine; and
(B) limits a major life activity.
California defines mental disability as follows:
- Emotional or mental illness
- Intellectual or cognitive disability (formerly referred to as “mental retardation”)
- Organic brain syndrome
- Specific learning disabilities
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Chronic or episodic conditions such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder
If your condition qualifies as a physical or mental disability under California law, then your landlord must make reasonable accommodations so long as they do not result in undue hardship. As with all of these types of situations, you may be entitled to break your lease if your condition warrants a finding that this is a reasonable accommodation in view of your circumstances.
As you can see, this stuff is complicated. Now you can try to sort it out on your own or consult with a qualified lawyer to help you navigate through it..
For your convenience, here’s our 50 state reference table (including D.C.) that will link you to the official landlord tenant laws of your state.
If you prefer to have a lawyer assist you, I would try JustAnswer. They boast access to thousands of highly-rated, verified real estate lawyers whom you can connect with via their unlimited chat service.
By clicking the banner below, you can get a one week trial membership for only $5, which you can cancel at any time.
What If My Condition Doesn’t Qualify as a Disability?
If your condition does not rise to the level of a disability that is protected under law, don’t give up hope. You have other options you can explore.
Option 1: Review Your Lease Carefully
You will want to look over your lease carefully to see if there are other provisions that you can use to break your lease early.
Obviously, a month to month lease is ideal because you can terminate on very short notice and you are no longer liable for paying rent under your lease once it expires.
Some leases also contain a “buyout” clause. This is a provision that allows a tenant to end the lease early if they pay a fee. Usually, these clauses require some advance notice, but it can be a nice option if it’s there. It will certainly be better than being on the hook for all of the rental payment remaining on the lease (assuming you have a good amount of time left).
You should also review the lease to see if there are any conditions or other termination rights that you can exercise. If the unit is unsafe, uninhabitable, or there are other conditions that apply to your situation, see what the lease says about that.
Option 2: Communicate with Your Landlord
Let your landlord know that you have this physical or mental medical condition and ask them if there is anything they can do to accommodate your situation. Mention that early termination would be ideal for you and see what they say. If you have a doctor’s note supporting your condition, provide that to them as well.
Even though your condition may not rise to the level of a disability from a legal point of view, your landlord may be willing to work with you anyway, especially if you have been a great tenant to date.
Option 3: Find a Replacement Tenant
Another option is to offer to find a replacement tenant for your unit. This can be a pretty nice option for your landlord. Especially if you offer to list the unit, take all of the emails and calls from prospective tenants, arrange for showings, and basically handle all of the hassle associated with finding a new tenant.
To do this, ask your landlord if they have a listing description that they have used in the past and any photos you can use. In many cases, they will be more than happy to oblige. You will also need to know their screening requirements (e.g., minimum income levels, credit score cutoffs, etc.), so you can perform initial screenings on tenants.
I have found a lot of success finding tenants on zillow.com and apartments.com, so you may want to check them out.
Related Reading: If you want to learn more about how to break your lease early by finding a new tenant, check out my full article on the topic here.
Option 4: Terminate Your Lease Early without Permission
As a last resort, you may want to leave the unit and not pay any further rent.
But if you do that, you run the risk being on the hook for the remainder of the rental payments (and potential penalties) under the lease. That’s the bad part.
However, there is a silver lining. In most jurisdictions, the landlord is required to mitigate damages by trying to find a suitable replacement tenant. Once they do, you will no longer be on the hook for your lease.
It’s a gamble, so you should only use this as a last resort, because if they are not able to find a replacement tenant fast, you will be liable for a large portion of the remaining rent.
Another risk of breaking your lease like this is that a landlord may report any non-payment of rent to credit reporting agencies and take you to court. These actions can have a serious and negative impact on your credit score, which could affect your ability to rent a new place in the future.
But some landlords may just decide to cut their losses and not sue. Litigation is expensive and it’s a pain (even for landlords), so they may just chalk up your departure as a lost cause and work on finding a new tenant to fill the vacancy.
It’s a far from a perfect option, but it’s a ray of hope when all other options have been exhausted.
But before you choose this final option, consider whether there are any other grounds for termination that we haven’t covered already.
Check out my full article on how to break your lease early without penalty for more details. It includes 11 situations where you can terminate early (plus one bonus option that applies in all situations).
Struggling with a disability can be extremely challenging but the good news is that if your medical condition qualifies under your applicable laws, you may have a strong case for terminating your lease early.
Plus, there are some solid alternative options you can explore to get out of your lease even if federal and state laws don’t protect your specific condition.