What Happens if My Roommate Leaves Before Our Lease is Up?

What is a Lease and Who is a Tenant?

Under the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, a “lease” or “rental agreement” is a written or oral agreement embodying the terms and conditions concerning the occupancy and use of a dwelling unit.

Virginia Lease Agreements

When choosing between an oral or written lease agreement, you should have a Virginia real estate lawyer help you craft a well-drafted, written lease agreement. This written agreement is the best tool a court has to determine the respective duties between the parties. The Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development Program offers a free, downloadable brochure here.

When Your Lease Isn’t Clear

Unfortunately, many times, even written agreements may not clearly address respective obligations between roommates. Typically, in most lease agreements, each tenant has an independent, legal obligation to pay the landlord for the entire rental amount. A landlord can sue each tenant or roommate separately or can sue just you for the entire amount pursuant to the joint and several liability obligation or clause set forth in your lease agreement. Furthermore, many landlords may not accept joint checks and will require that rent is payable in one check.

Just because a lease agreement has not been made between the parties, does not mean much. A landlord-tenant relationship can exist between co-tenants, even when one tenant is not on the lease. This can be one of the most important ways deterring one roommate’s rights and obligations to others.

If a Roommate Leaves Before the End of a Year Lease in Co-tenancy Situations

A co-tenancy is an arrangement where all of your roommates have signed the lease. In this situation, if one roommate leaves before the end of a year lease, the landlord has a choice of remedies. Most leases will hold all of the roommates “jointly and severally liable.” This means that the landlord could force the remaining roommates to pay for the breaching or defaulting roommate’s share of rent.

The landlord could also sue the defaulting or non-paying tenant for his share of the rent, or even for the entire value of the rent. The Virginia Code broadly states that “rent may be recovered from the lessee or other person owing it, or his assignee, or the personal representative of either.” Simply, anyone who has agreed to be liable for the rent by signing the lease, can be sued for the entire rental amount.

If a Roommate Leaves Before the End of a Year Lease in Sub-tenancy Situations

It could also be the situation that you took on a roommate later and they did not sign the original lease. However they have agreed to pay rent to you. They will be considered your sublessor. The first scenario would be the sublessor breaching the lease and moving out. In this case, the original tenant, or anyone signed to the original lease may bring a lawsuit against the breaching sublessor for the rent they are obligated to pay under the sublease agreement. Since the original tenant is acting as a landlord in this scenario, they are required to mitigate damages the same way a landlord would. The owner landlord could not bring a case against the sublessor, but must instead. sue their tenant, who is subsequently, suing the sublessor.

In the scenario of the sublessee breaching the lease, the sublessor would still not be liable to the owner landlord. The landlord could bring suit against the sublessee for rent or unlawful detainer, while the sublessor would have to file their own case against their sublessee for their damages. Unfortunately, once the original tenants lease is terminated, the sublessor also losses their right to possession.

If a Roommate Leaves Before the End of a Year Lease in Authorized Occupant Situations

The third category of possible roommate situations would be the authorized occupant. The word authorized is used because, unless the lease states otherwise, this occupant must be authorized by the landlord to occupy the leased premise.

Often, this is a family member or significant other. These occupants do not sign the lease and have no obligation for rent to landlord. Conversely, the landlord has no obligation to authorized occupants. This is because the Virginia code specifically excludes them as tenants. It is possible that separate contract exist between tenants and their authorized occupants, but those would have to be examined on their own merits. If an authorized occupant leaves during the lease, the departure has no effect on the tenancy, and neither the landlord, nor the tenant, can collect against them under the lease agreement (barring any specific language). However, if a tenant breaches their lease, the authorized occupant loses their right of occupancy, because it was contingent on the existence of the lease between the landlord and tenant.

Virginia Landlord Tenant Attorneys

Contact Keithley Law, PLLC today by calling (703) 454-5147 and schedule a reduced-fee, initial consultation in our Fairfax law office with one of our Virginia Landlord Tenant attorneys.

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