Written by Tony Chiaramonte on 11/24/2020

What is a Tenancy at Will?

tenancy at will is the most common kind of tenancy agreement. 

In most cases, the law requires a tenant to pay rent in advance, once a month. Tenancies at will vary by state law. But in general, they don’t include a formal lease or specify a payment agreement. They don’t usually define how long a renter can stay at a property. 

Tenancies at will are often called month-to-month tenancies or estate-at-will. They are flexible and can benefit both the rental property owner and renter. However, they also can cause problems for both parties. 

When is an agreement considered a tenancy at will?

Landlord-tenant law defines tenancy at will as an arrangement between a property owner and a tenant without any strict terms. 

Tenancies at will are often the result of an oral agreement between the rental property owner and tenant. 

In these cases, the parties don’t draw up a formal written lease. Or a lease may not be legally valid. Or the renter might remain on the property after the agreement has expired. 

Such agreements often start at the beginning of a rental relationship. They also can begin at some other point during the landlord-tenant relationship. Sometimes it happens at the end of a formalized lease term or rental period.

Holdover tenancies, tenancies at will, and periodic tenancies 

It’s important to understand how holdover tenants, tenants at will, and periodic tenancies differ.

In both holdover tenancies and tenancies at will, there is no formal agreement. But a holdover tenant is one who doesn’t vacate a property after a fixed-term agreement expires. This person is also called a tenant at sufferance.

In some cases, the renter stays without the landlord’s permission, in which case, eviction proceedings often follow. But if the landlord keeps collecting rent payments instead, then the law allows the renter to keep staying at the property. 

There are also differences between tenancies at will and periodic tenancies. For one thing, periodic tenancies usually involve a written lease. 

But both types of tenancies involve a renter living at a property for a period of time with no specific end date. Instead, the agreement indicates when a party must provide notice to vacate. 

Tenancy terms and concepts can be confusing. People with questions should seek legal information to understand their tenancy status. 

Tenancy at will benefits, drawbacks, and protections 

A tenancy at will provides both renters and property owners with benefits. However, there are some distinct drawbacks to the living situation, as well. 

Benefits of tenancies at will

Tenancy at will is very flexible. Most state laws allow either party to end the lease with little notice. This is a useful option for renters who move often with little notice. 

Also, a rental property owner may be thinking about selling their property. A tenancy at will lets them keep making income while the property is on the market. 

Tenancies at will lack the formalities of a typical rental agreement. This is especially important when it comes to moving out of the property. 

Tenancies at will are often verbal. With this type of agreement, landlords often don’t worry about move-out inspections and security deposits. 

This is beneficial for renters who may not be able to afford extra move-out costs. It also benefits landlords who want to simplify the process.

Drawbacks of tenancies at will

Tenancy at will agreements may pose drawbacks for both parties, too. For one thin, the agreement offers a lack of stability for tenants. 

Under this agreement, a landlord may demand that the tenant vacate the property with only a few days’ notice. By the same token, landlords may not depend on proper notice from tenants, either. The specifics in these cases depend on state and local laws.

Also, rental property owners in this situation can’t rely on sustained rent payments or a stable source of rental income. Without a written agreement or defined lease term, either party could find themselves in a difficult situation. 

This type of agreement is generally a bad idea for individuals who thrive on consistency and structure. 

Landlords and renters should consider a formal written lease agreement to be sure the law protects their rights. 

Property owners should consider formal written agreements. These lease agreements include:

  • The terms of the tenancy

  • The period of time that the lease is effective

  • The end date of the agreement

  • The number of days’ notice that each party needs to provide before terminating the lease

  • The applicable eviction process if the renter fails to abide by the terms

Tenancy at will protections

Even though these agreements are informal, state and local laws offer certain protections to tenants. 

Generally, the law provides tenants with the legal right of exclusive possession. This means once they’ve signed the lease, they can live as they please on the property (within reasonable boundaries). Tenants also maintain the right to occupy a property that meets safety codes. 

Further, the law typically requires landlords to notify renters before entering the property. And most state laws require the landlord to give some notice before requiring the tenant to vacate the unit.  

Even in cases with no written lease agreement, real estate owners are protected under state and local laws. Tenant responsibility laws require people occupying rental properties to meet certain expectations. 

Tenants must:

  • Pay their rent on time

  • Avoid causing excessive damage to the property

  • Provide their landlord with notice before vacating the property 

Evictions and tenancies at will

Although laws vary by state, most jurisdictions require landlords to provide 30-60 days’ written notice before beginning eviction proceedings. 

In some cases, the law requires landlords to provide a reason. When local laws require a basis for the eviction, landlords may argue that the renter hasn’t met their responsibility. 

They could argue that the tenant’s rent check bounced. They also might say the renter caused excessive destruction to the property, or breached a state or local ordinance. 

NOTE: Evicting a tenant-at-will is much more complicated than evictions involving other types of tenancies. Both parties should be aware of this fact. 

Lease agreements and will arrangements

State law dictates what happens to a lease agreement when one of the parties dies. However, the rules are rarely straightforward. 

The landlord’s will situation can greatly impact a tenant’s rights. If a landlord dies, then property ownership will change according to the will arrangement. Depending on what happens to the property, a renter may have to move, even if their lease has not ended. 

Local laws guarantee tenants certain rights in these situations. Still, it’s important to note that renters must continue to pay rent during the transition of the property. 

The law is much more complex when a tenant dies.

In some cases, it may allow the deceased’s representative to terminate the original lease within a specified time period. 

In other situations, the renter’s estate still may be liable for rent payments for the remainder of the lease term. Under some laws, a landlord may be able to apply a tenant’s security deposit toward unpaid rent.

Generally, landlords should receive written notification of a tenant’s death. If a landlord obtains a tenant’s death certificate, an attorney can help facilitate whatever process follows. 

After securing a death certificate, a landlord can prepare the property for the next tenant. 

Further complications can arise around the fate of the tenant’s security deposit and belongings. In most cases, a landlord needs to work with the tenant's family to discuss the tenant’s will arrangements. 

Legal information and assistance for tenancies at will 

Lease agreements can affect other aspects of peoples' lives.There may be concerns surrounding rights to repair, security deposits, and evictions. 

People also may want to discuss how their tenancies can affect their wills and other legal documents. 

Without proper legal information and representation, renters and landlords may face difficulties. An attorney can provide guidance before a tenant or landlord signs a lease. 

Lawyers also can provide help during potential landlord-tenant disputes, including representing parties at mediation or eviction proceedings.

Individuals should seek out more legal information from an experienced attorney. A qualified lawyer can discuss issues involving a new lease, an original lease, breach of a lease, or tenancy status. 

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