Question: I signed a one-year lease for an apartment here when I came down for college. My father was a co-signer on the lease because I don’t have credit or a job. Well, unfortunately my father has suffered a severe stroke, which has left him with almost no memory, impaired speech and mobility, and no job. Aside from this I also received a letter from his neurologist telling me that I have to travel back home and take care of my father, being that I am the only available family member — my other brother is in the military and cannot leave to take care of him.

I spoke with the people at the rental office, and they said the only way I could get away without paying any penalties for breaking the lease is if the apartment is rented, and I’m OK with that, but the problem is that it could take months for them to rent it, and right now with medical bills and unemployment I can’t afford to pay the rent, much less the rent plus penalty charges. I just need to know if I can legally break the lease due to the fact that it is a family emergency. The only reason I got the apartment was because of my father’s signature. I had no job and no credit, and the landlords knew that. Is there anything I can do so that I may go and take care of my father and not have to keep paying rent?

Property manager Griswold replies:

Sorry to hear about your father, but I have to tell you that the information from the apartment managers is accurate. A lease is a legally binding document, and personal reasons or even severe health emergencies are not legal grounds to unilaterally terminate the lease without penalty or being responsible until the unit is re-rented.

This is why so many tenants would be better served with signing a month-to-month rental agreement so that they are never obligated for more than 30 days. Thus, when life happens, they can move without any major financial issues. Of course, landlords usually offer leases at a lower monthly rental rate because the tenant is locking themselves into a long-term agreement. So you save money each month and you are protected against the landlord from raising your rent or changing the other terms of the lease, but you give up the flexibility of being on a short-term rental agreement.

Question: My son is looking for an apartment near his college. Do I need to co-sign his lease? What happens if one of his roommates drops out of school and leaves the apartment? Must he still pay the rent?

Steven Kellman, an attorney for tenants, replies:

No, you are probably not legally required to sign the lease, but you may have to anyway. For example, if your son is under 18 years old he would still be a minor even though he’s entering college. While in certain circumstances, a minor may contract for many things, but those contracts are either void, voidable by the minor, or binding like it was with an adult. The law disfavors contracts by minors for interests in real property (i.e. leases). So realistically, if he is under 18, you may have to co-sign to allow your son the opportunity to get that lease. You may be asked to co-sign even if he is over 18 years old. This usually occurs when the student simply has not had a chance to establish a good credit record yet or if his income is too low to support the rent. Be careful. If there is a roommate, and it is a joint lease, besides for your son, you are co-signing for the roommate, even if you’ve never met him! By co-signing, you are guaranteeing the faithful performance of the lease by both individuals. Any lack of payment or damage to the apartment, regardless of which student was at fault, may ultimately be dropped in your lap to resolve. That means if the roommate damages or leaves the apartment, then your son, and ultimately you, are obligated to pay the full rent owed and damages. Of course, you could seek reimbursement from the offending roommate (i.e. Small Claims Court) if you can find him and collect the judgment you would win if you proved your case.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies” and co-author of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies,” and San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and James McKinley, principal in a law firm representing landlords.

E-mail your questions to Rental Q&A at

Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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