It’s difficult, but not impossible, to end a three-year contract early

Q. I have been renting office space from a guy that owns a house that was converted to offices a few years ago. I signed a three-year lease with two three-year options to extend. The first three years went well so I signed up for the first three-year option with a small increase in rent. So far, so good.

Shortly after I signed up for the option, my wife got sick. Due to my need to care for her, I could not continue with my business. I contacted the owner of the property to work something out so I could terminate the lease.

The owner told me he would attempt to rent the property but that I would be responsible for the rent until he was able for find another tenant. I explained the situation with my wife but that did not seem to have much impact on our conversation.

Is there anything in the law that would help me in my situation? I would not be attempting to break the lease if this situation with my wife hadn’t come up. I really have no choice as we cannot afford full-time care, which is what she needs right now.

A. It is generally very difficult to terminate one’s obligations under a contract. Of course, one party breaching terms of a contract could very well legally justify the other party terminating the contract. That is not our situation here.

There are two “doctrines” in Illinois that may support your ability to terminate the contract, the Doctrine of Impossibility and the Doctrine of Commercial Frustration. The Doctrine of Impossibility addresses the situation where it would be impossible for one party to satisfy the terms of a contract. For example, you sign a contract to purchase a house and before the transaction closes, the house burns down. As the subject matter of the contract no longer exists, this doctrine may be applied.

That is not the case here. It is not “impossible” for you to continue the lease. It will, however, cause a severe hardship on your family. Given your situation, arguing that the Doctrine of Commercial Frustration applies would be the argument more likely to be successful. The Doctrine of Commercial Frustration is applicable when the intent and objectives of the contract have been thwarted by an unforeseen event (your wife’s illness). This argument is difficult to establish as the courts do not apply the doctrine liberally.

All that said, it is difficult to believe the owner would be eager to stand in front of a judge and argue that his lease should be enforced in a situation where you have no choice but to stay home and attend to your wife. Also, many if not most judges do not allow owners to bill defaulting tenants indefinitely. Owners have a duty to “mitigate” damages, which means the owner, once he is aware of your vacating the property, must make a diligent effort to find another tenant.

I would suggest sending written notice to the owner notifying him the date you are vacating, the reason why and making the owner an offer to legally terminate the lease, maybe two or three months rent. If you reach an agreement, make sure you get the agreement in writing.

• Send your questions to attorney Tom Resnick, 910 E. Oak St., Lake in the Hills, IL 60156, by email to or call (847) 359-8983.

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