There are many different options for both landlords and tenants who may want to break a lease early in Wisconsin. In the case of landlords, they may be able to enforce penalties and get compensation for any owed money if their tenants try to move out before the lease expires.

In any case, understanding Wisconsin law and local landlord-tenant laws will allow both parties to have a healthier leasing relationship and avoid legal issues in the future.

The following page will cover how breaking a lease in Wisconsin works, what you can expect, and what options you have available to avoid losing money in the process.

Notice Requirements to End a Rental Property Lease in Wisconsin

First, let's cover all notice requirements for ending a rental agreement. If you're working with a periodic lease, your tenant should provide you with written notice; the amount of notice will depend on the type of lease term you currently have:

  • Monthly Lease: 28 days of notice.
  • Leases with No End Date: Five days of notice.

It's important to note that tenants don't need to send any notice for fixed-term leases. This is because those leases already have a set end date.

How to Deliver a Lease Notice Legally

All tenants should follow the lease's terms surrounding delivery methods for the notice letter. Otherwise, the letter may be invalid.

  • Landlords are free to choose their preferred method of receiving a written notice, but the most common ones in Wisconsin include the following:
  • Serving the letter in person.
  • Giving the letter to the person in charge of the landlord's business or the place where they pay rent.
  • Sending the letter via registered/certified mail.
  • Leaving the letter in the landlord's last known address with one of their family members. The person should be at least 14 years old.

Can Tenants Break a Lease Early in Wisconsin?

Technically speaking, tenants can break a lease early in Wisconsin. However, they will be responsible for paying rent until the lease expires.

There are some exceptions that may allow a tenant to move out of the rental property without paying penalties or legal fees, and we'll review those in the section below.

Early Termination Clause

Wisconsin state law allows landlords to include an "Early Termination Clause" in their rental agreement. There, they can specify all the terms and conditions the tenant must follow if they want to leave the rental unit early.

Most of the time, the landlord will allow the tenant to end the rental agreement in exchange for a penalty. The best thing tenants can do, in this case, is review the lease to see if there's any language that explains what they can do if they want to move out early.

Some special circumstances may allow the tenant to end the lease agreement without paying a penalty, and the landlord should specify those in this clause. On the other hand, the tenant may try to negotiate with their landlord to see if they can come up with a mutual termination agreement.

Active Military Duty

It's possible to break a lease in Wisconsin if the tenant is an active service member. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) offers legal protection to tenants starting active military duty after they signed the lease agreement.

Typically, the SCRA starts protecting the tenant as soon as they enter duty and until 30-90 days have passed since they got discharged. Tenants, however, will not be able to end the rental agreement automatically; they can only do it 30 days after the next rent period starts.

Those who want to end a lease agreement early must send their landlord written notice, as well as proof that they will be on duty for the next 90 days. Finally, the tenant must attach a copy of the deployment orders.

The SCRA protects members and commissioned corps of the:

  • Public Health Service
  • Activated National Guard
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Armed Forces

Unreasonable Living and Safety Conditions

Every landlord must make reasonable efforts to keep their properties up to the state's health and safety standards. If the tenant ever finds a hazard in the property, they have the legal right to request a repair.

Landlords who fail to provide the requested repairs in a timely manner may risk getting their tenant "constructively evicted." This means that they would no longer have an obligation to meet the lease's terms, allowing them to break their lease without penalties.

Generally speaking, all landlords in Wisconsin must be able to comply with all the following requirements:

  • Keep all premises, equipment, and appliances in good working order.
  • Make necessary repairs when asked unless the damage was done because of the tenant's negligence or improper use of the premises.
  • Keep all plumbing, machinery, and electrical wiring in good working order unless the unit is subject to a specific housing code.
  • Comply with all local housing codes.
  • Disclose any housing code violation or hazard to the tenant before signing the lease or receiving any money.

Landlord Harassment

If the landlord repeatedly violates the tenant's right to privacy, they may get them constructively evicted. There are two common scenarios that, if happen frequently, may allow the tenant to break a lease in Wisconsin:

  • Changing Locks: A landlord can't change the locks of the property without the tenant's permission.
  • Entering the Property: Landlords in Wisconsin are required to give their tenant at least 12 hours of notice before entering the property. If the landlord fails to provide notice several times, the tenant may be able to break their lease without penalty.

On the other hand, landlords can't turn off utilities or remove windows or doors without the tenant's consent, as it's illegal.

Repeated Violations of the Lease Agreement

Violating a lease in Wisconsin in any way may be enough justification for a tenant to end it without penalty. It's essential for all the parties involved to review the terms of the agreement before taking any action.

According to Wisconsin law, landlords can't do any of the following, as it would be considered a lease violation:

  • Enforcing a rent increase mid-lease.
  • Trying to force a tenant out of the property without following Wisconsin's eviction policies.
  • Doing any of the following because the tenant tried to enforce their rights: Increase rent, make threats, re-take possession of the unit, refuse to renew the lease, turn off utilities, or decrease the services offered initially.
  • Trying to speed up remaining rent payments for breaking the lease's terms or waiving the landlord's responsibility to mitigate damages.
  • Asking the tenant to pay for the landlord's attorney's fees or any related action.
  • Allowing landlords to speak on the tenant's behalf about something related to the agreement.
  • Excusing the landlord for their liability for personal injury or any property damage due to their negligence.
  • Enforcing liability on the tenant for any injuries that were caused by factors out of their control or property damage caused by other people unrelated to the tenant or a natural disaster.
  • Waiving the landlord's responsibility to maintain the property in good working order.
  • Allowing the landlord or property manager to end the agreement because of a crime committed where the tenant (or someone who lawfully resides with them) was the victim.
  • Allowing the landlord or property manager to end the agreement because of a crime committed related to the property without including the required notice.

Stalking, Domestic Violence, or Sexual Assault

The state of Wisconsin protects victims of domestic violence who may want to break their lease. Those who want to request an early termination because they fear for their safety must keep the following in mind:

Landlords can't refuse to renew a tenancy (or end it) because the tenant (or someone who lawfully resides with them) is a proven victim of stalking, domestic violence, or sexual assault.

The tenant may request an early termination if they (or their child) face a physical harm threat from someone else if they stay in the unit.

Tenants may request to get their locks changed within 48 hours, but they will be responsible for covering all the expenses.

In any case, the tenant must provide the landlord with a certified copy of:

  • Criminal complaint.
  • Condition of release.
  • Protective order for the tenant or their child.

Other Reasons That Tenants May Use to End a Rental Agreement in Wisconsin

There are two more arguments tenants may use for breaking a lease in Wisconsin. The difference between these arguments and the ones we just mentioned is that the following ones may get reviewed and approved by a court first:

  • Senior Citizen Cases or Qualified Disabilities: Landlords may be able to provide reasonable accommodations within their property for people with a qualified disability, according to the 'Americans with Disabilities' and 'Fair Housing' Acts.
  • Mandatory Disclosures: A landlord in Wisconsin may be required to provide certain disclosures surrounding the property's known defects. Not being able to do this may result in an early termination.
  • Tenant's Death: If a tenant dies, the lease will automatically end when it expires or 60 days after the landlord learns of this death (whichever is sooner). Now, if there are any surviving co-tenants in the property, the lease will continue unless the tenant was the only person mentioned on the lease. In any case, the deceased tenant's estate will be liable for the remaining rent for the 60-day period.

Are There Any Invalid Reasons to End a Lease in Wisconsin?

The following is a list of reasons that, while they could seem like a reasonable argument for breaking a lease, they may not be enough justification on their own to avoid penalties.

In other words, these arguments won't give the tenant legal protection for breaking a lease legally:

  • Buying a new house.
  • Upgrading or downgrading the property.
  • Moving in with a partner, close friend, or family member.
  • Moving someplace else to be closer to family.
  • Moving out because of a divorce or separation.
  • Moving out because of criminal activity that happened around the area.
  • Relocating for another job or school.

Regardless of the case, the tenant will be better off negotiating with their landlord before trying to break their lease using any of the previously mentioned reasons.

What Can a Landlord Do? - Compensation Alternatives

Landlords in Wisconsin can seek compensation if their tenants try to move out of the property early. They can recover lost money through penalties.

The best way to enforce those penalties is to include an "Early Termination Clause" in the lease that outlines all the terms the tenant must be familiar with if they ever want to break the agreement. These terms include any penalty fees the tenant must pay to cover owed rent.

Typically, landlords use penalty fees to cover:

  • Owed rent
  • Advertisement fees
  • Tenant screening fees

Moreover, there are many penalties landlords can consider, including:

  • Keeping the security deposit.
  • Charging the tenant for the owed amount.
  • Hiring a debt collector agency.
  • Taking the case to a small claims court.

Furthermore, adding all of these terms to the lease agreement could lower the chances of the tenant breaking the lease illegally.

In any case, communication is key if you want to prevent any legal problems. As long as the tenant provides you with the necessary notice before moving out, you may be able to negotiate with them until you come up with a mutual agreement.

Keep in mind that not including any 'early termination' clauses in your lease may allow the tenant to move out without any further responsibility to pay rent.

Once both parties sign the lease, it becomes a legally binding document, meaning that if anyone violates the terms, they will have to face legal/financial consequences.

Are Landlords Required to Find a New Tenant?

Yes. Wisconsin law requires landlords to make a reasonable effort to re-rent their unit if the tenant decides to move out early. It's considered a way to "mitigate damages."

Overall, the tenant will only be liable for the money that the landlord lost while the unit was vacant.

It's important to note that, while landlords must try to re-rent their units, they're not required to relax their rental standards to find a new tenant faster. Moreover, the landlord has the right to ask the tenant to pay all the necessary re-renting expenses, including advertisement and tenant screening fees.

Can a Tenant Sublet the Apartment or Rental Unit to Pay Rent?

Tenants may be able to sublet the property to someone else as long as they get their landlord's approval. In most cases, the lease includes a clause that specifies the need to ask the landlord for permission before subletting.

Even if the lease doesn't include any 'Subletting' clause, it's recommended for the tenant to ask their landlord if they can rent the property to someone else. Sometimes, this is a reasonable alternative for tenants who want to move out early but still owe rent to their landlords.

Tenants must send a notice letter through certified mail to get the landlord's approval. The letter itself must include all the terms for the sublet agreement request.

Landlords have the right to refuse or approve the tenant's request. However, the landlord may not refuse the request based on discriminatory factors. They can only refuse a subletting request based on legitimate/reasonable factors.

Bottom Line

Breaking a lease, under any circumstance, can be overwhelming. Whether you have a residential or commercial lease, the best thing you can do to avoid as many legal problems as possible is to carefully review all the terms you included to ensure you're enforcing penalties appropriately.

Even if the tenant fails to comply with these terms, there are several options you have available to ensure you get the compensation you deserve for all the lost rent. We hope this guide has helped you understand Wisconsin laws surrounding breaking a lease early.


What Happens If the Tenant Doesn't Pay Rent After Moving Out Early?

Landlords may seek compensation through a small claims court. However, remember that the landlord is required to make a reasonable effort to re-rent their property instead of asking for the remaining rent right away.

Can Tenants Move Out Without Any Further Rent Obligation?

Yes, tenants may be able to break their lease without penalties, as long as they meet one of the conditions specified on this page or if they negotiated a mutual termination with their landlord.

Can Landlords Keep the Security Deposit as a Penalty?

Yes, landlords can keep the security deposit as a penalty for breaking a lease early. However, if the deposit isn't enough to cover all the owed rent, they may seek further compensation through a small claims court.

What Does the Law Mean By "Reasonable Efforts"?

It means landlords can't sit back and ask for the money they're owed right away; they're required by law to make an effort to re-rent their property to someone else.

In those cases, the new tenant's rent would be used to cover the money owed, as the tenant will only be liable for the money the landlord loses during the time the unit was vacant.

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David is the co-founder & CMO of DoorLoop, a best-selling author, legal CLE speaker, and real estate investor. When he's not hanging with his three children, he's writing articles here!