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Learn when and how renters in Wisconsin may lawfully break a lease, as well as how to minimize their obligation for rent until the conclusion of the lease period.

Many renters who sign a lease for an apartment or rental unit intend to remain for the whole term of the lease, which is typically one year. However, despite your best efforts, you may want (or need) to leave before your lease expires, such as if you’re a student at the University of Wisconsin and just want to remain in your Madison apartment during the school year. Or maybe you’re relocating with your boyfriend or girlfriend. You may need to relocate to be closer to your new career or an older parent who need your assistance.

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Breaking the lease is leaving before the end of a fixed-term lease without paying the remaining rent owed under the lease. Here’s a quick rundown of Wisconsin tenant rights to end a contract without additional obligation for rent.

Tenant Rights and Responsibilities in Wisconsin When Signing a Lease

A lease binds you and your landlord for a certain length of time, generally a year. A landlord cannot raise the rent or amend other provisions of a standard lease until the contract expires (unless the lease itself provides for a change, such as a rent increase mid-lease). A landlord cannot compel you to leave before the lease expires unless you fail to pay the rent or breach another key requirement, such as holding huge and raucous parties on a regular basis. Landlords in Wisconsin must follow particular processes to discontinue the tenancy in these instances. For example, if you are a month-to-month renter, your landlord must give you five days’ notice to pay the rent or leave before filing an eviction case, or may use an Unconditional Quit notice with 14 days’ notice. If you have a lease for less than a year or are a year-to-year renter, landlords must provide you with five days’ notice and cannot utilize an Unconditional Quit notice. If you hold a lease for more than a year, your landlord must provide you with 30 days’ notice and may not utilize an Unconditional Quit Notice (Wisconsin Stat. Ann. 704.17).

Tenants are legally obligated to pay rent for the whole lease period, which is normally one year, whether or not they continue to reside in the rented unit—with the exceptions listed below.

When Is It Legal to Break a Lease in Wisconsin?

There are few key exceptions to the general rule that a tenant who breaches a lease must pay the whole lease term. In the following circumstances, you may be allowed to lawfully leave before the lease term expires.

You have begun active military service.

Under federal law, if you join active military duty after signing a lease, you have the right to break the contract. (The War and National Defense Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, 50 U.S.C.A. 501 and subsequent.) You must be a member of the “uniformed services,” which include the armed forces, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) commissioned corps, the Public Health Service’s commissioned corps, and the activated National Guard. You must notify your landlord in writing of your intention to end your lease for military reasons. Once the notice is sent or delivered, your tenancy will end 30 days after the next due date for rent, even if that date is many months before your lease ends. Check state law for any extra requirements that may apply to renters who begin military service.

The rental unit is dangerous or violates Wisconsin health and safety standards.

If your landlord fails to provide habitable housing in accordance with local and state housing codes, a court will most likely rule that you have been “constructively evicted,” which means that the landlord has effectively “evicted” you by providing unlivable housing, and you have no further responsibility for the rent. Wisconsin law (Wis. Stat. Ann. 704.07(4)) specifies the measures you must take before moving out due to a severe repair issue. The issue must be really significant, such as a loss of heat or another critical service.

Your landlord is harassing you or infringing on your privacy rights.

Wisconsin state law requires your landlord to give you prior notice before entering rental property (Wis. Stat. Ann. 704.05(2)). If your landlord repeatedly violates your privacy rights, or does things like removing windows or doors, disconnecting utilities, or changing the locks, you will be considered “constructively evicted,” as described above; this will usually justify you breaking the lease without further rent obligation.

Wisconsin Landlord’s Obligation to Find a New Tenant

If you don’t have a legal reason to terminate your lease, the good news is that you may still be exempt from paying the whole lease term’s rent. This is because, under Wisconsin law (Wis. Stat. Ann. 704.29), your landlord must make reasonable attempts to re-let your unit, regardless of the reason for your departure, rather than charging you the whole remaining rent due under the lease. If you break your lease, you may not have to pay much, if any, extra rent. You only have to pay the rent that the landlord loses because you moved out early. This is because Wisconsin law compels landlords to take reasonable efforts to limit their losses, or to “mitigate damages” in legal jargon.

So, if you violate your contract and leave without legal explanation, your landlord can’t generally simply sit back and wait until the lease expires, then sue you for the complete amount of missed rent. Your landlord must make reasonable efforts to rerent the property and deduct the let collected from new renters from the amount you owe. The landlord does not need to lower the bar for suitable renters, such as accepting someone with a bad credit history. Furthermore, the landlord is not obligated to rent the unit for less than fair market value, nor is he or she required to devote all of his or her attention to renting your apartment, neglecting other business. Furthermore, the landlord may add appropriate charges to your payment, such as the fees of promoting the property.

If your landlord swiftly rerents the property (more probable in college cities and comparable markets), you’ll only be liable for the (hopefully short) period while the unit was empty.

The bad news is that if the landlord attempts to rerent your apartment and is unable to locate an appropriate tenant, you will be obligated to pay let for the balance of your lease term. If you leave many months before your lease expires, this might be a significant sum of money. Your landlord will almost certainly utilize your security deposit to pay the amount you owe initially. However, if your deposit is insufficient, your landlord may sue you, most likely in small claims court, where the cap in Wisconsin is $10,000.

How to Reduce Your Financial Liability When Breaking a Lease

If you want to leave early and don’t have a legal reason, there are better choices than just packing out and praying your landlord finds a new renter swiftly. There are many things you can do to reduce the amount of money you have to pay your landlord—and to assist assure a positive recommendation from the landlord when you’re searching for your next place to live.

You may greatly improve the situation by giving your landlord as much notice as possible and drafting a heartfelt letter explaining why you need to leave early. Ideally, you should be able to provide your landlord a suitable replacement renter, someone with strong credit and solid references, to sign a new lease.

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