Does a Lease Have to Be in Writing to Be Enforceable?

Lease agreement document with money on a wood background

When people make an agreement, it is common practice for at least one of them to ask to “get it in writing,” or, in other words, get a written contract. Other times, a person who made an agreement with another person might try to later back out of the agreement by arguing, “I never signed anything.” But is that really the way the law works? In most cases, no, but there are in fact several situations in which a signed document evidencing an agreement is necessary for it to be enforceable, and these include leases, although not necessarily all leases.

Oral Contracts Are Generally Enforceable…

When two parties agree to benefit each other somehow in a bargained-for exchange (e.g. Person 1 agrees to pay $100 for Person 2 to cut Person 1’s lawn next week), then there is a valid contract under the law, and there is generally no requirement that the agreement be in writing to be enforceable. Having a writing is a good idea, however, to prove that the agreement actually exists if the other party disputes it, but, again it is not generally necessary.

…Except When They’re Not

That said, under the legal concept of the “Statute of Frauds,” there are some types of agreements which do have to be documented in a writing that is signed by the party who is now trying to get out of the contract (thus, creating your own document and signing it is not good enough to make it enforceable against a non-signing party). California enforces its own version of the Statute of Frauds, which includes both leases and land sale contracts.

Leases and the Statute of Frauds

Under California law, a lease does have to be in writing to be enforceable, but only when the lease is for a period of more than a year. What this means is that if you and a landlord (a landlord being any person that rents you a space) agree to an 18-month lease, but there is never a written agreement, then both you and the landlord may not be able to enforce the terms of the lease, because 18 months is longer than a year. But if the lease was for only 9 months, then the Statute of Frauds would not apply, and the oral agreement between you and the landlord would be enforceable by either of you.

There is, however, an additional legal doctrine called partial performance which does make oral contracts enforceable even if they are covered by the Statute of Frauds. Under this doctrine, if either party starts performing under the lease – for example, the tenant begins paying rent or the landlord provides the space to the tenant – then a court may decide to enforce at least some of the contractual obligations of the lease.

Work With an Experienced Los Angeles Real Estate Attorney

Attorney Laine T. Wagenseller of Wagenseller Law Firm has published numerous articles on real estate law and works with individuals and businesses across Southern California in resolving real estate matters, including lease matters. Contact Wagenseller Law Firm today to schedule a consultation.