Q: I rent a home with three other roommates. One has found a new housing situation and wants to remove himself from our lease. Our lease states that there is a $300 fee for not fulfilling the one-year term. We also owe a balance toward outstanding rent that needs to be paid. We don't want to get evicted, so we want to know what would be the best process for my roommate to remove himself from our lease. How would the rest of us be able to remain at the property until the end of the lease?
A: You should review your lease to see if there are any other requirements for removing a tenant from the lease other than a payment of $300. Then, you should contact your landlord and let him or her know that one of your roommates is going to be terminating the lease early by paying the fee. Ask if there is anything else you should do to remove one roommate from the lease, other than getting current on your rent and having the roommate who is leaving pay the fee. A landlord can evict you if you breach the lease. Examples of a breach include nonpayment of rent or illegal activity on the premises. You cannot be evicted based on one tenant terminating the lease early, since your lease allows for early termination. The majority of leases in Minnesota state that each tenant is jointly and severally liable for the rent, which means that you and the other two tenants will have to cover the entire rent, including the amount paid each month by the fourth tenant. If the three remaining tenants cannot afford that, then you should ask the landlord if a new roommate can move in to help cover expenses. Go to your landlord, explain the situation and find out what the remaining tenants need to do to move forward. If there is any verbal agreement that you and your roommates create with the landlord, make sure to get it in writing and signed by the parties.
Q: Does a landlord have the right to know how much you owe on a utility bill if you are up for disconnection of services because of a past-due bill? If they have the right to know if the home they own is being disconnected, do they also have the right to know the renter's account balance? If a renter doesn't pay the utility bill, is the landlord legally required to pay for the utilities in order to be reconnected, since they are the property owner?
A: Minnesota law allows landlords to put utility bills in their tenant's name when a single-family home is rented, and the lease indicates that the tenant will be paying the utilities. The landlord, in this case, will not likely get a notice of disconnection, since the utility bills are in the tenant's name. If the landlord contacts the utility company, they may be able to get that information, but there are no laws regarding it. Tenants who are having trouble paying their utility bills can receive energy assistance from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. You can apply by downloading an application at mn.gov/commerce-stat/pdfs/application-english.pdf. Then, complete the application and submit it to your local energy assistance provider. You should hear within one month if you qualify for energy assistance. You also can get information on how to apply for energy assistance by calling 1-800-657-3710.
You didn't mention which specific utility bills are late. The property owner is protected from liability for some types of utility bills that the tenant has agreed to pay per their lease, but then fails to. Minnesota law doesn't allow utility companies to recover payment from the property owner on a tenant's outstanding bill for natural gas or electricity. However, water and trash are not included in that law, so the property owner is responsible for a tenant's outstanding bills relating to water and trash. The property owner can then bring an action in conciliation court or district court to get a judgment against the tenant for the outstanding utility bills they had to pay.
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, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.