Tenancy-at-Will: Definition, How It Works, Protections, and Rules

What Is a Tenancy-at-Will?

A tenancy-at-will is a property tenure that can be terminated at any time by either the tenant or the owner/landlord. It exists without a contract or lease and usually does not specify the duration of a tenant’s rental or the exchange of payment. The agreement is governed by state law and the terms can vary by state, though federal law comes into play in cases of discrimination. 

“Estate-at-will” is another name for a tenancy-at-will. The estate-at-will or tenancy-at-will agreement is generally beneficial to both tenants and owners, who may wish to have the flexibility to change rental situations easily and without breaking a contract.

Key Takeaways

  • A tenancy-at-will is an agreement between a landlord and a tenant without a written agreement.
  • This type of tenancy does not specify its duration or the exchange of payment and can be terminated at any time.
  • Tenants and landlords may find these types of arrangements flexible because they allow for changes to rentals without breaking a contract.

How a Tenancy-at-Will Works

Tenants who have permission from their landlords but don’t have leases generally have a tenancy-at-will. These tenancies are sometimes called “month-to-month” or “at-will” agreements, as there is no formal contract specifying the length of time during which the tenancy will take place.

A tenancy-at-will defines the relationship between the landlord and tenant when strict terms—such as those contained within a lease agreement—are not present, are defective in nature, or have expired. A tenancy-at-will agreement may also be created at the beginning of the landlord-tenant relationship.

Tenancies-at-will are effective if there is an oral agreement in lieu of a written one between the two parties, if there is a written agreement stating either that the tenancy is on a month-to-month basis or there is no specified timeline, or if the tenancy is continued after the original lease expires without signing a new one.

Tenancies-at-will generally involve parties who are known to each other. In some cases they make take place between family members.

Holdover tenants

A tenant-at-will is different from a holdover tenant, even though both lack a formal rental agreement. A holdover tenant typically stays on after a fixed-term agreement that has expired—sometimes without the landlord’s permission. If the landlord continues to accept rental payments, the tenant can legally occupy the unit. If not, the tenant is considered a trespasser and must move out. If they don’t, the landlord can begin eviction proceedings.

Tenancy-at-Will Protections

Both parties are afforded certain legal protections governing the relationship even in the absence of a written agreement. Just one example: The landlord must provide a safe environment as required by law. Additionally, the landlord must provide notice prior to entering the tenant-occupied property as governed by local statutes.

The tenant also has certain unspoken responsibilities they must fulfill even under a tenancy-at-will. Rent payments must be made, and the tenant must adhere to any rules they have agreed upon with the landlord. The tenant is also responsible for any damages beyond normal wear and tear on the property. Both parties must follow local regulations when it comes to vacating or having the property vacated.

Even though there is no formal agreement, a notice to vacate is normally required to terminate a tenancy-at-will.

Vacating a Tenancy-at-Will

While a tenancy-at-will arrangement may not have written and agreed-upon requirements regarding notification of intention to vacate, terms are generally spelled out within local landlord-tenant regulations. It is not uncommon for a 30-day notice to apply to both the tenant and landlord. This means that if the tenant intends to vacate, or the landlord wants the tenant to vacate, 30 days’ notice must be supplied to the other party. A reason for the request to vacate is not required to be cited by either party. The notice is traditionally provided in writing.

In Maine, for example, landlords in an at-will arrangement can evict tenants without giving a reason, but they must give a 30-day written notice of the intended eviction. But under certain circumstances, which include serious damage to the premises, being a nuisance to neighbors, being a perpetrator of domestic violence or sexual assault, and being at least seven days in arrears for rent, a landlord can give a tenant a seven-day notice to vacate for a tenancy-at-will agreement in the state of Maine.

There are also circumstances when a tenancy-at-will can be terminated without the need for a notice to vacate. If the tenant or property owner dies, or the landlord decides to sell the property, the tenancy agreement is nullified.

Types of Tenancies

There are generally four different types of tenancies, including the tenancy-at-will.

In a tenancy-for-years, the agreement is for a fixed period of time. It has a specified beginning and termination date, at which point the tenant is expected to vacate the premises. As the lease’s end date is already set, there is generally no need for a notice to vacate. However, the landlord may choose to renew the lease.

A periodic tenancy allows a tenant to remain within the property for an undetermined period of time, as the lease has no set end date. The lease, however, typically stipulates when notice to vacate is required, and both parties are bound to adhere to that clause.

Another kind of tenancy is tenancy-at-sufferance. In this type of agreement, a tenant may legally occupy a property after their lease expires but before the landlord issues a notice to vacate. The tenant has thus overstayed their welcome.

Article Sources
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  1. MassLegalHelp.org. "Chapter 4: What Kind of Tenancy Do You Have?" Page 63. Accessed Sept. 10, 2020.

  2. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. "Landlord-Tenant Law." Accessed Sept. 10, 2020.

  3. MassLegalHelp.org. "Chapter 4: What Kind of Tenancy Do You Have?" Page 65. Accessed Sept. 10, 2020.

  4. Maine Legislature. "§6002. Tenancy at will; buildings on land of another." Accessed Sept. 10, 2020.

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