Giving Forms a New Lease on Language

Why can’t legal documents be written in understandable English? Even a typical residential lease form, one of the most common legal documents encountered by consumers, is filled with repetitive, incomprehensible jargon.

“They don’t make sense to the parties they’re supposed to make sense to, and they’re so lengthy that you can’t possibly review them word by word . . . unless you spend half the day poring over them,” complains author Leigh Robinson in his book “Landlording.” “Try reading over a lengthy agreement with a new tenant sometime, and you’ll barely be able to keep from stifling yawns and rolling your eyes.”

Legal documents aren’t going to change anytime soon. Lawyers are not trained to speak or write in understandable English and are reluctant to change contractual provisions that have stood the test of time in courtrooms across the land. And landlords, indoctrinated by lawyers, are reluctant to use a simple understandable lease, out of fear they might lose the benefit of some protective legal device.

You should never sign any legal documents that you don’t fully understand. Obviously, that’s impossible for most of us, although it is a nice-sounding golden rule. To help make it a bit easier, especially for anyone who is about to rent a house or apartment, I will wade through a typical lease purchased at a stationery store and help explain some of the confusing legalese.


--"The security deposit, or any portion of it, may be used to cure the default.” If you don’t pay the rent, or don’t comply with other provisions of the lease, the landlord may use all or any part of the security deposit to pay the rent due or cover money lost as a result of your breach of the agreement. “Cure the default” is not the equivalent of the removal of a tumor--it means doing what is necessary to get you back into compliance with the lease.

--"Except as herein provided, Tenant agrees that the premises are in a tenable and good condition . . . " Always watch out for sentences that include the phrase “except as herein.” It means that there may be an exception hiding somewhere else in the agreement. It’s standard legalese used to allow the parties to add an amendment that directly conflicts with what you just read--and the amendment will rule.

So read on carefully to make sure that the lease doesn’t say later on that the air conditioning doesn’t work, or the roof leaks during heavy storms.

--"Notwithstanding the foregoing . . . " This is another clause to beware of. It’s a warning. You’re about to read something that contradicts and supersedes whatever you just read. In simple English, it means: “Ignore what you just read, you’re about to read the real story.”


--"Tenant shall indemnify and hold landlord harmless from and against any and all claims. . .” Called an indemnity clause, this has the tenant promising to pay the landlord for any damages or loss of money the landlord suffers on account of just about anything the tenant does. Notice that it is not reciprocal. When read in full, it is difficult to understand, and often skipped over. Unfortunately for the tenant, it’s fairly standard.

--"Tenant shall not assign, transfer, sublet, mortgage or otherwise transfer or encumber all or any part of Tenant’s interest in this lease without Landlord’s prior written consent.” What a mouthful. It would be a lot simpler, and probably practical enough, to say the tenant can’t sublet or assign the lease without the landlord’s permission.

Technically, assigning the lease means the new tenant takes over all obligations under the lease completely, while with a sublease, the original tenant is still obligated to pay the rent if for some reason the new tenant doesn’t.

--"If more than one person is the Tenant, the obligations imposed shall be joint and several.” This means that each person who signs as a tenant shall be obligated to abide by all the terms of the lease and is liable for the full rent. In other words, if your roommate doesn’t pay his half of the rent, you will be stuck for it.

--"On the last day of this lease, Tenant shall surrender the premises in good condition, broom clean.” This last one is almost understandable without any explanation, although I’m still wondering about the legal definition of “broom clean.”

Klein cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal VIEW, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.