If you’re a victim of domestic violence, very few things are as important as your safety. If you’re concerned about breaking your lease to leave an abusive situation, don’t be. California law allows you to break a lease without any penalties so that you can move somewhere safer—as long as you give your landlord proper notice.
Can I legally break my lease because of domestic violence in California?
Yes, you can legally break your lease if you’re experiencing domestic violence. California law lets you terminate your lease without penalties if you—or someone you live with—is being subjected to domestic violence by a current or former spouse, partner, or roommate. It even protects you if you’re being abused by someone you’re dating or share a child with. Abuse of an elder, child, or dependent adult is also grounds for breaking a lease, as is human trafficking.
Generally, if you have an intimate relationship with someone who is abusive, you can legally break your lease.
What's considered domestic violence in California?
Under state law, domestic violence doesn’t just mean you’re physically harmed by another person. Verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse are reason enough to get out of a dangerous living situation. In California, any of the following are considered domestic violence:1
- Threats or promises of abuse
- Sexual assault
- Destroying personal property
- Physical abuse of family pets
- Limiting your ability to come and go as you please
If you’re experiencing any of these from an intimate partner, it’s wise to talk to a domestic violence counselor and seek a restraining order. You’ll need a restraining or protective order or police report to legally break your lease.
What's the process for breaking my lease?
If you’re experiencing domestic violence, California law allows you to break your lease without your landlord’s agreement. But you must follow a specific process:2
1. Get documentation of the domestic violence
To legally break your lease, you’ll have to provide your landlord with one of the following documents:
- A restraining or protective order: To get a restraining order or protective order, you must fill out the needed paperwork, submit it to a local court and get approval from a judge.
- A police report: You can contact your local police department and detail any incident that puts you in danger.
- Documentation from a qualified third party: Provide signed documentation from a qualified person (such as a domestic violence counselor, psychologist, or doctor) that you’re getting treatment for any physical or mental injuries.
Whichever document you obtain, it has to be dated within six months (180 days) of your notice to terminate your lease. If you’re unsure how to do any of this, consider consulting with an attorney or local domestic violence counselor.
2. Inform your landlord that you’re leaving
Let your landlord know in writing that you’ll be ending your lease for reasons related to domestic violence. Attach a copy of whatever documentation you obtained to the letter. (You can find a sample letter here.)
3. Move out within two weeks
Once you notify your landlord, you can move out immediately. You’ll be responsible for no more than 14 calendar days of rent after you’ve given your landlord notice.
What if I can’t get documentation?
If you can’t get documented proof of domestic violence—or if you don’t want to divulge that you’re dealing with domestic violence for any reason—you can give your landlord the standard 30-day notice. If you do this, you’ll generally have to pay rent for the remainder of your lease, whether it’s one month or six months.
But landlords in California must attempt to re-rent their empty units, whether or not you claim domestic violence. If your landlord can quickly find a new tenant for your unit, then you may not have to pay any rent remaining on your lease—or you'll just owe a prorated amount. For instance, if you give the standard 30-day notice for breaking your lease on July 1st—and your lease isn’t up until October—then you’d technically be on the hook for several more months of rent. But if your landlord has a new tenant move in July 15th, you only owe rent through that date.
Will I owe any money when I break the lease?
Although your landlord can't charge you any additional lease break fees for ending your lease early because of domestic violence, you'll likely still owe some remaining rent. Once you notify your landlord that you're leaving, you only owe two more weeks of rent. Under the concept of damage mitigation described above, you don’t have to pay the full two weeks if your landlord rents to a new tenant in less than 14 days (although that would be a very quick turnaround).
Will my security deposit be refunded?
If you break your lease due to domestic violence, your security deposit should be returned to you in the same way as if you’d moved out at the end of your lease. That means your landlord must refund your deposit within three weeks of you moving out, with any deductions for unpaid rent, cleaning and damages other than normal wear and tear.
What happens to my roommates if I move out?
Just because you end your lease because of domestic violence, it doesn’t necessarily mean any roommates or family members end theirs. As long as they’re mentioned as tenants on the lease agreement, they must stay in the unit and must pay rent—including any you would have paid. There is an exception for family members, who can also legally end their lease when you do, whether or not they’re experiencing domestic violence.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.