Jay rented an apartment from Sol for two years, at $1800 per month. Two months before the end of the contract, Jay expressed his interest in the third year rental option. Although Sol agreed, he notified Jay that the rental fee would be adjusted to the going market rate and raised to $2100 a month. Jay reminded Sol that, according to their contract, he retained the option of a third year lease at a rate not more than a one-hundred-dollar increase. Upon review of the contract, Jay’s claim appeared accurate, though Sol brought to the attention of the Bet Din a very bothersome feature of the clause in mention. The contract read: “The tenant has the option to rent the property for an additional one year after the two-year term, for every year at a rental rate to be determined, but not to exceed $1900.” Sol explained that he was unaware of the bizarre wording of the contract, which seemingly enabled Jay to rent the property every year indefinitely at a maximum price of $1900. Since he only recalled agreeing to a one-year option without a cap on the rental fee, Sol was unwilling to comply with anything less. Jay asserted that although he was unaware of the tenant-friendly clause in the contract, he nevertheless intended to exercise every legal right to his advantage. Since the contract indicated a perpetual agreement, he was entitled to lease the property indefinitely. He emphasized that, as the tenant, he did not draw up the contract, only signed his agreement to the terms Sol stipulated.
Is Jay in fact entitled to rent the property forever? Can Sol discard the clause of the contract on account of its inexplicable nature?
Can he raise the rent? How should the Bet Din rule and why?
According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, once a contract is signed all of its terms and provisions are legally binding. Contesting a contract by claiming not to have been aware of one of its clauses is generally futile. Hence, it is highly advisable to thoroughly read a contract before signing it and to submit it for review by a licensed professional.
Leading halachic authorities debate whether a contract is legally binding in instances in which one of the fundamental terms of the transaction are not defined at the time of the signing. Fundamental factors of a transaction that need to be addressed include the total number of pieces, the price and, in the case of a property rental, the specific duration of the lease. While the decision of the Shulhan Aruch is to generally validate a transaction lacking the above information, nevertheless, restrictions do apply. Hence, in the absence of a defined time frame in which an apartment is to be rented, the rental agreement is only valid for the minimum time frame customarily accepted and is thereafter terminated immediately. The time allotted to a tenant with such a contract can vary between 30 to 180 days.
In instances in which a tenant claims that his contract entitles him to a perpetual lease renewal, a Bet Din will meticulously evaluate the text of the contract before rendering a decision. Only if the contract clearly indicates without ambiguity that the rental is of perpetual status is the agreement deemed valid. If, however, the language of the contract is obscure, the tenant is likely to only be allotted a time frame of 30 to 180 days before being evicted. Furthermore, it stands to reason that a perpetual agreement can only be established if distinct documentation is prepared. A monumental transaction that enables unlimited usage surely requires appropriate documentation in order to be effective.
To briefly allude to such terms is insufficient.
By rule of the Shulhan Aruch, in all instances in which the wording of a contract is questionable, the bearer of the contract is denied his appeal and must forfeit his claim. This is especially true in instances in which a tenant is claiming the right to maintain possession of a landlord’s property. Since the owner of the property is the landlord, the tenant is required to prove his position beyond the shadow of a doubt in order to withhold the property. Needless to say, if the lease has terminology that is possibly contradictory to the bearer’s claim, his request is dismissed.
Typographical errors in a contract are common occurrences. If it is very obvious that a word or a phrase is a mistake, leading halachic authorities will consider deleting the erroneous addition. While a Bet Din will not jump to conclusions, upon review of a contract this ruling can be implemented.
A Bet Din will, at times, confer with professionals of the civil legal system when ruling on a contract in order to determine what is customarily practiced in the field. Most often the laws and customs of the land coincide with the laws and regulations of our holy Torah.