My tenants have only gone and split up from their stupid relationship, ain’t they? Urgh, why do catastrophic things always happen to me/good people?
I received a phone call last week, it was my tenant (the male counterpart) informing me that his relationship (with the co-tenant) has gone down the shitter. I immediately replied with my condolences, while at the forefront of my mind, I was freaking out about the future state of the tenancy. Selfish? Perhaps.
Anyways, so now what happens? Where do I stand with the tenancy?
My tenant’s separation/divorce
So, last week I was driving home from… somewhere (don’t remember where)… when I unexpectedly received a phone call from my tenant, let’s call him Eddie.
Eddie and his wife, let’s go with Dorothy, have been my tenants for a measly 7 weeks, so I was expecting it be a dreaded maintenance related call. It was so much worse.
The call went as follows:
I’ve got something to tell you, but I don’t want you to be alarmed.
*obviously I’m bloody alarmed at this point and preparing myself for a stroke*
A week after we moved into your property, Dorothy and I decided to separate and get a divorce. She’s done some things that I can’t forgive and I’ve unfortunately had to move out. It’s been a really difficult period in my life as you can imagine; we have been together for 20 years.
The situation is that I’ve moved out, but she’s going to remain in the property and continue to honour the contract. I’m going to continue paying her rent for the next 2 years. That’s what we have agreed to.
You’ve been more than fair and nice to us, so I just wanted to make you aware of the situation, and that you don’t need to worry about the rent. Dorothy doesn’t know I’m making this phone call.
If there’s any problems, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
*Landlord has a stroke*
The conversation lasted about 20 minutes. I won’t bother reciting my responses because they stray from the relevant facts, but just imagine thoughtful, empowering, liberating and motivational words of wisdom, which gave him the strength to continue and appreciate life. He didn’t say it, but I’m sure my tender words were exactly what he needed at the time.
Eddie didn’t tell me exactly what happened, but I read in-between the lines and I felt like he was trying to tell me that Dorothy did the dirty on him and he was the good one in the equation.
Anyways, it’s a bit of an odd situation, and one I’ve never been in before. It’s especially awkward since they have been separated for 6+ weeks and Dorothy (the remaining occupant) hasn’t mentioned anything to me, even though we recently had friendly exchanges regarding the arrangement of a gas safety check. She seemed happy as Larry.
So am I meant to act dumb and none the wiser? Probably. It’s a domestic issue and it’s none of my business, so it seems like the best play.
Where does the divorce leave me (the real victim in all this)?
Firstly, I’m just grateful I have decent tenants and that the rent is being paid (I genuinely believe it will continue to be paid). From the moment I met them, I really liked them; they’re respectful and particularly well-mannered. I still feel the same despite their domestics, so I really don’t have any reason to rock the boat.
It’s a joint tenancy, both their names are on the tenancy agreement contract, so they’re still both legally responsible and bound by the terms of the contract, including the rent.
I don’t have intricate legal knowledge regarding tenants getting divorced, there might be legal entitlements and technicalities for the separated couple, especially if children are involved (i.e. who is entitled to remain in the property), but I believe it’s standard protocol for the landlord.
What you should do if your tenants break-up
First and foremost, before making any rash decisions or allowing panic to set in, it’s best to discuss the situation with your tenants, and determine what their immediate plans are.
The reality is, you may not have anything to be concerned about, and it’s business as usual.
Check your tenancy agreement
Check the details of the tenancy, so you know exactly where you stand:
- Is the tenancy single or joint?
- When is the fixed-term due to end, or has the tenancy rolled onto a periodic tenancy?
Who is responsible for rent after a tenant break-up?
If the tenancy agreement is signed by one single tenant, then that person is responsible/liable for paying rent during the tenancy, even if they are the one’s vacating after a break-up.
If the tenancy agreement is a joint one, then everyone named in the contract is equally responsible (unless the tenancy agreement provides specific conditions on splitting the responsibility). All joint tenants are responsible throughout the tenancy, even if one or more of them vacate during it.
Can you end the tenancy because your tenants broke up?
A break-up alone doesn’t provide landlords the right to terminate a tenancy during the middle of the fixed-term if there is a breakdown in their tenants’ relationship. In any case, landlords shouldn’t end a tenancy without good reason, and a breakup alone normally isn’t one.
The tenant(s) still have legal rights to remain occupants until the end of the tenancy, and landlords can’t terminate the tenancy (i.e. evict the tenants) unless the tenants breach the terms of the tenancy (i.e. fall into rent arrears) or if the tenancy fixed-term has expired (or expiring shortly) and the landlord provides valid notice (e.g. Section 21).
Alternatively, if there is a mutual agreement between landlord and tenant(s) that all parties wish to end the tenancy early, then that works.
For more information, here is a link to a more in-depth blog post on how to end a tenancy and the different options available.
Can my tenants end the tenancy because they have broken up?
Just like landlords can’t immediately end a tenancy on the basis of a break-up, tenants can’t either. The tenants are still responsible for taking care of the property and paying rent until the tenancy is legally terminated, either by:
- Providing notice to the landlord (either to terminate the tenancy at the end of the fixed-term or at the end of a statutory rolling period)
- Mutual agreement between tenant and landlord
Other points to consider…
While mulling the situation over, here are a few points (mostly generic good practices) I considered, which of course, may or may not be of any help to anyone else in a similar bind…
- Communication: I appreciate that burying one’s head in the sand or in a pair of gigantic silicone inflated tits (whichever is accessible at the time) is the easiest and most convenient method of dealing with most problematic/difficult situations. But in reality, avoiding the realities of life is often the root of unnecessary complications and further problems.
Whether you’re a tenant or landlord, it’s always best to be open about any directly related problems (no matter how big or small it may be), because it makes a lot easier to prepare and deal with situations. I genuinely believe that the majority of problems in life escalate out of control due to lack of communication.
In my specific case I chose not to further interfere with the situation because it’s a very personal and domesticated issue. I know what I need to know. But generally speaking, communication is key to resolving disputes, but judgement is required at times.
- Business Vs Personal matters: I just briefly touched on this point, but I think it’s worthy of its own bullet point. It’s important for landlords to remain professional when tenants are having their own personal in-house dilemmas. Don’t get involved, just focus on the business aspects. You don’t want to be caught in a cross-fire, even if your intentions are honourable. Moreover, it’s always in your best interest to remain neutral, don’t take sides (even if there is an occupant involved which you wouldn’t mind screwing around with).
- Don’t panic: I know I’ve already made this point, but I think it’s important to irritate it, because understandably, the natural reaction for any normal landlord in this situation is to panic!
There’s no point worrying or panicking until there’s reason to, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t make extra provisions to protect yourself from any potential risks due to the new circumstances. Find out all the facts and then act rationally.
In my case, I knew my property was being taken care of and I trusted them to honour the tenancy agreement, and more importantly, despite my tenants’ personal dispute, I trust them both to be decent people.
- Inspection: often during domestic related incidents there is, very sadly, violence involved. I know if my hypothetical wife cheated on me I would be enticed to throw a couple of plasma TV’s and clenched fists across the room. On that note, if you’ve been notified of any reasons to be concerned about the safety of your property, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to arrange a property inspection to ensure everything is in order.
A couple of weeks ago I actually entered the property (with permission) to allow the gas man to enter the property, which allowed me to inspect the property. This was before I knew about the ongoing drama, but the property genuinely looked amazing, so I know it’s being taken good care of.
- Renewing Vs Terminating tenancy: when the boat is rocked you’ll naturally consider the future of your tenants. Is it in your best interest to terminate the tenancy or allow it to continue? Think about it carefully.
I’m going to allow the tenancy to continue for now, because they haven’t given me any reason to worry. I’m not even going to renew/update the tenancy so Dorothy becomes the sole occupant when the end date approaches. Instead, I’m going to allow the tenancy to become periodic so it remains a joint tenancy, that way both tenants remain liable. On that principle, I’d advise all landlords to be cautious before renewing tenancies with a sole occupant.
However, if in your case you feel completely uncomfortable with the situation for whatever reason (e.g. domestic violence has occurred), it might be worth terminating the tenancy as soon as possible.
- Change in tenant’s status: most landlords will class a couple/family as “one tenant”, as opposed to two friends living together, which usually get classed as individual tenants (albeit, they may still have a joint tenancy). So now Eddie and Dorothy have separated (probably not “legally” at this point, though), they effectively seem like individual tenant’s. If they legally get separated/divorced, the remaining occupant (Dorothy) maybe entitled to housing benefits due to the loss of income, which may make her a DSS tenant. If that happens, it may or may not cause additional concerns and problems for myself, only time will tell. However, I believe it will be down to the discretion of the local council to determine her legibility. Some councils will only entitle Dorothy to claim if she is a sole tenant, which will mean renewing the tenancy agreement (which is a common request from separated tenants so they can qualify for benefits).
Either way, it’s important to note that when a couple become separate entities, their “tenant status” as individuals may change as their financial circumstances change. Definitely something to think about.
- Joint tenancies: I always favour joint-tenancies when applicable, particularly in the case of a couple that are both employed. This means that liability for the rent will be split, making it more likely for the rent to be paid.
Ultimately, this means if worse comes to worse and the tenants fall into arrears because there’s an internal dispute about who’s going to pay for the rent and/or remain in the property, it will be a hell of a lot easier to recoup the money if the case ends up in court.
If the tenancy isn’t joint, the person’s name on the tenancy agreement contract is responsible to pay the landlord. However, this is where the issue may creep into the realms of “family law”, as they may need to make financial arrangements regarding splitting assets and settlements. From what I’m led to believe from copious amounts of daytime TV (how reliable of a source that information is, I’ll leave that for you to decide), the men usually get royally screwed over. But of course, that’s not our concern as landlords.
- Expect the unexpected: never in a million years would I have guessed that my tenant was contacting me to divulge the demise of his marriage. While divorces are incredibly common these days (kind of like obesity), it was still a reminder that shit happens. Granted, the shit is usually in the form of rent arrears, but it doesn’t do anyone any harm to expect the unexpected.
Whether you specifically need legal advice on the matter at hand or on another landlord/tenant related issue, I would recommend contacting your local Citizens Advice or Shelter. You could also try leaving a comment below, there’s often some useful responses :)
Are you a landlord or tenant going through this ordeal? Drop a comment and share your experience or feel free to ask any questions…
Disclaimer: I'm just a landlord blogger; I'm 100% not qualified to give legal or financial advice. I'm a doofus. Any information I share is my unqualified opinion, and should never be construed as professional legal or financial advice. You should definitely get advice from a qualified professional for any legal or financial matters. For more information, please read my full disclaimer.