What Is Tenancy-at-Will?

Tenancy-at-will is a property tenure that can be terminated at any time by either the tenant or the owner or landlord. It exists without a contract or lease and usually does not specify the length of a tenant's duration or the exchange of payment.

A tenancy-at-will is also known as an estate-at-will. The 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.

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

How Tenancies-at-Will Work

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 the tenancy is month-to-month or there is not 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 unknown to each other. In some cases, they make take place between family members.

Tenancy-at-Will Protections

Both parties are afforded certain legal protections governing the relationship even in the absence of a written agreement. For 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 he or she must fulfill even under a tenancy-at-will. Rent payments must be made and the tenant must adhere to any rules agreed upon by the landlord and tenant. 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.

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 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. With a few exceptions that include serious damage or being a nuisance to neighbors, a landlord must still give a tenant a seven-day notice to vacate for tenancy-at-will agreements in the state of Maine.

A tenancy-at-will can be terminated without the need for a notice to vacate in certain circumstances. If the tenant or property owner dies, or the landlord decides to sell the property, these actions will nullify the tenancy agreement.

Holdover Tenants

Tenants at will are different from holdover tenants, 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 he or she doesn't, the landlord can begin eviction proceedings.

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 the length of a tenant's 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.
  • Despite the lack of a formal agreement, a tenancy-at-will provides both parties certain legal protections including the need for a notice to vacate.

Types of Tenancies

There are generally four different types of tenancies, one of which is 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. Since 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 the 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 required to adhere to that clause.

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