Q: My landlord in Minneapolis is trying to hold me to a one-year lease because I agreed to it verbally. Then my circumstances changed; I got engaged, which makes a one-year lease difficult. I have never heard of an oral lease and that it could be binding; I assumed you needed a signed lease. My landlord waited a month to come by to get a signed lease, and by then I didn’t want a one-year lease. Is there a law that allows a lease to be oral instead of written?
A: According to Minnesota law, an oral lease of one year may be enforceable unless the building has 12 units or more. In that case, every lease must be in writing. If there are fewer than 12 units, then an oral lease may be binding, unless it is for more than one year. You didn’t state how big your building is, but if there are 12 or more units, then your oral agreement is not binding, and your landlord cannot enforce a one-year lease because it is not in writing. Some cities have ordinances requiring written leases for rental property with fewer than 12 units, but Minneapolis does not.
When there are fewer than 12 units, things get tricky. Leases for more than a year are not enforceable unless in writing. The most important issue is whether the agreed-upon end date of the lease was more than a year from the date that you and your landlord reached the oral agreement. For example, if you talked in mid-February, and the agreed end date was supposed to be Feb. 28, 2018, then the end date of the lease is more than a year from when you agreed, so it is unenforceable. If you agreed in mid-February to an oral lease to end Jan. 31, 2018, then the lease is enforceable because it is less than one year.
It sounds like you want to negotiate a reduction in the length of your lease. You should let your landlord know that an oral agreement isn’t binding if the building has 12 units or more, and that you’d prefer signing a six-month or month-to-month lease because of your engagement. If there are fewer than 12 units in your building, and you verbally agreed to a one-year lease, then the oral agreement may be binding, depending on the agreed-upon end date. If that is the case, you should still negotiate with your landlord for a six-month or month-to-month lease. If your landlord agrees, then make sure to get any agreement in writing and signed by both parties.
Widower still needs to honor lease
Q: My mother died recently. My stepfather is unable to pay for their apartment without her Social Security income. They have a one-year lease that expires in October. He is trying to sell everything he can to get money to pay next month’s rent, but ultimately he wants to move. He can use all of his available resources to just pay rent for the next few months, or he can move out and risk legal action, additional fees and destruction of his credit rating. Does the death of a spouse give him any better options?
A: Minnesota law allows for a lease to be terminated when all the tenants on the lease die. When only one tenant dies, and there is another tenant left on the lease, then that tenant needs to cover the entire rent or negotiate a buyout with the landlord to terminate early. You should have your stepfather review his lease — many leases contain a buyout clause allowing a tenant to terminate early by paying a fee, often two months’ rent. If there is no buyout clause in your stepfather’s lease, he should talk to his landlord. Most landlords would rather get some payment to terminate early, rather than get nothing and have to pursue a court action, which can take months or years to recover any compensation. If there is no buyout clause in your stepfather’s lease, and he negotiates a buyout for early termination, then make sure he gets the agreement in writing and signed by both parties so he has written proof of the agreement.
Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Information provided by readers is not confidential.