What can you do if your relationship breaks down and you have a joint tenancy agreement, and you want out?
Renting with a partner can be a great way to enjoy the benefits of having a home without the commitment of owning a property. However, a joint tenancy agreement also comes with its own set of risks and challenges, particularly if your relationship breaks down with your partner. In this post, we'll explore some of the potential issues you might face and offer advice and support for navigating them.
The first thing to keep in mind is that renting is a legal agreement. When both you and your partner sign a tenancy or rental agreement, you're agreeing to abide by certain rules and regulations in exchange for the right to occupy a property.
The most important document in this situation is your joint names tenancy agreement. This legal document outlines the terms of your tenancy, including the length of the tenancy, the monthly rent you're expected to pay, and the financial responsibility you have as a tenant. Both you and your partner will have signed the joint cohabitation agreement, and so for that reason, you are both legally responsible for paying an equal share of the rent and ensuring you adhere to your responsibilities.
If you have a cohabiting relationship breakdown with your partner, and you are no longer in a position where you feel you can live together or should live together (especially in the case of victims of domestic abuse), after trying to resolve the issue amicably, you may still have a length of time where you are both expected to pay the rent.
If you're at risk of domestic abuse or violence, you may be able to get safe housing and support through a refuge or the council without ending your tenancy immediately.
If you are in a situation where your partner leaves and your financial situation allows you to look at sole tenancy of the property, and you can afford the financial obligations of being a sole tenant of the property, you can speak to the landlord, tenant or housing association for a transfer of tenancy to your name only, and this legal process isn't that expensive to organise, so long as they are agreeable to a new tenancy agreement.
Depending on the nature of your relationship, this relationship breakdown may cause the remaining tenant serious financial issues. What if your partner decides they aren't going to be paying rent on a property they may well not be living in anymore? If they've signed the lease, then this means they should be paying until the lease can be terminated; it's in the terms of the lease, but it's not unusual for a break-up to end badly, and communication between both parties may be frayed at best, possibly spiteful and even dangerous, and so what if that person refuses to make financial contributions, what happens?
The issue here is that it's likely that when both parties signed the lease, there will be a clause that states that should one person not pay the rent, the other person will be responsible for both shares of the rent. The landlord isn't really interested in squabbles between you and your ex-partner; they are only interested in ensuring the rent is paid on time, every time, no matter who pays it! This puts a larger financial strain on the person still at the property, and needless to say, this can cause money issues if you're income is not enough to cover both parties rent as well as the household bills, so you may be looking at ways to give back the property and move out.
The break clause
In some circumstances, you may be able to end the tenancy early. You may have a break clause built into your fixed-term lease, which means you may be able to leave the property earlier than the expected end date of the lease. This is likelier on longer leases or ones over 12 months, and often the breaks are set up for around the middle of a lease, so once you've been at a property for 9 months on an 18-month lease. For shorter lets, of say 12 months, it's much less likely that you'll have a break clause, as it's a relatively short amount of time for a rental property let, and the landlord would assume that a relationship status wouldn't change in that length of time; however, relationship breakdowns are one of the most common reasons for a lease to become problematic.
If you do have a break clause, then you can look to activate that as soon as possible to limit the amount of rent you need to pay, and often it's a 1 to 2-month lead-time to vacate.
What if you don't have a break clause and can't afford to pay?
This is where it can start to get messy! Assuming that you're not going to be able to afford to pay both parts of the rent, you may not have any other financial support or financial assets (bank of mum and dad, for example, or savings to help out), then you need to speak to your landlord or agents.
The best option is to have a frank conversation and explain that your relationship has broken down and that your financial status means you're not going to be able to afford the rent in full going forward. If you can speak directly to the landlord, this is preferable; and because, unfortunately, some agents really aren't that interested in a sob story; they've made their commission from the landlord and don't want to get involved in issues. I know that sounds a bit negative on agents, but a recent personal family experience of this has proven this to be the case for us!
Sometimes the agents are actually your landlord, as the person you rent from is your immediate landlord. The owner of the property is the head landlord. You only have a legal relationship with your immediate landlord.
By explaining the situation to the landlord, you may be able to make an agreement on either a lower rent (unlikely), the opportunity to add someone else to the lease (sub let), to help with the payments, or the option to end the lease early. The landlord may allow you to use your deposit for payment of rent, but they are generally not a fan of this as if they use the security deposit to put towards rent, they may be out of pocket if you leave and the property needs repairs, due to tenant damage etc, and they'll have no deposit left to take these costs from! Your landlord cannot take money from your deposit to cover unpaid rent owed by another tenant, but you can offer it.
The smaller landlords are more likely to be receptive to ending leases than the larger corporation-run properties. The bigger they are, the more money and time they have to stick to their guns and then, if necessary, go down a legal route to recover funds.
A smaller landlord may be more understanding and accepting of the situation the tenant is in. They understand that if they don't have the finances to be able to afford to pay the rent, then the landlord is unlikely to receive the full rent, which in turn may cause them financial issues, and potentially the inability to be able to pay the mortgage on the property.
The smaller landlord is more likely to allow the lease to end early to limit their own exposure to financial issues. They may allow an immediate exit or one with reasonable notice of around a month or two. The sooner their non-paying tenant leaves, the sooner they can get the property advertised to a new prospective tenant and re-let, limiting their own financial exposure with a new tenant paying on time.
If they are going to play ball, they may charge you a re-letting fee to end your lease early, possibly a month's rent. This may be taken from the lease deposit if in agreement with you. If not, you may need to make this payment upfront. A landlord is required to hold your deposit in a special tenancy deposit scheme, which is held by a third party, and they may need to apply to this scheme for the agreed amount, which might slow things down a little bit.
If the landlord refuses the earlier tenancy end date, and there is no break clause etc, and the tenant is unable to pay, then they are able to go down a legal route to take back possession of the property and make a claim for any missing rent, plus legal costs. You would hope that a landlord would want to avoid this by agreeing to an earlier exit, but not all landlords always take the lenient and sensible route!
If you do get the option to leave early, that will make things easier for you, but what about the other tenant; they may feel they can just walk away if they aren't living at the property anymore or are no longer in a relationship with the other person, but if they've signed the lease then they are still liable for the rent; the issue is getting that money out of them, after all, they will likely be living in alternative accommodation and paying rent at that property, and can't afford, or won't pay rent on both properties!
If the landlord takes legal action, then it is still both parties liable, so your ex-partner won't get away scot-free, but it's far from an ideal situation! It's better to try and get out of the lease as quickly as possible and move on, if not to put a quick end to the situation but also to protect both parties' credit ratings; after all you both might want to get a mortgage in the near future and your mortgage lender aren't going to be happy to see these type of legal issues showing on your credit report.
If you are able to move out and have had no financial assistance from the other tenant, then you have the right to take them to small claims court to recover what you've had to pay out, but it might not be worth making a claim if it’s going to cost you almost as much as you’re claiming! Alternatively, you could make a small claim to avoid the court process and speed things up.
You’ll have to pay a fee to make a claim. How much you have to pay depends on what you’re claiming. You might also have to pay other fees as your case progresses and the court hearing takes place. Check the court fees on GOV.UK. If you win your case, you might get these back from the other side. If you lose, you might have to pay their fees, so it's a risk, but sometimes it's the principle of the matter that might lead you to go down this route.