Q: Do I have to pay my last month’s rent if I gave a security deposit? I’ve heard that my security deposit can and should cover the last month’s rent, but my landlord disagrees and is asking me to pay for August.

A: Generally, the purpose of a tenant security deposit is to cover any damage to the property beyond “normal wear and tear” caused by the tenant, not to cover the last month’s rent.

In some jurisdictions, the tenant may incur penalties for applying the security deposit to the last month’s rent instead of paying it. However, that is not the case in the District. District law places the burden on the landlord to “clearly state in the lease or agreement or on the receipt for the deposit or other payment the terms and conditions under which the (security deposit) was made.”

Under District law, the term “security deposit” is defined as any monies the tenant pays the landlord “as security for performance of the tenant’s obligations.” The tenant’s obligations, of course, include the payment of rent. Thus, the landlord may choose to apply the security deposit to cover rent that the tenant has failed to pay.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the tenant is free and clear to do the same regarding the last month’s rent. Indeed, many leases actually prohibit the tenant from using the security deposit as a rental payment. A tenant who does so anyway could be hauled into small-claims court and held liable for cleaning costs, any property damage and other associated landlord expenses.

The tenant’s better course of action is to request the landlord’s approval to have the security deposit applied to the last month’s rent. It could help to invite the landlord to conduct a “pre-move-out” inspection – i.e., to demonstrate the unit is clean and undamaged. Even in the best of circumstances, however, the landlord may deny the request. The landlord may fear that the property will be damaged during the move-out, or that the tenant may forget to disconnect cable TV or other services or that other unanticipated costs will arise over the course of the next month.

Security Deposit 101

Know your rights. Under District law, a landlord must:

Place the security deposit in an interest-bearing account

Post notices at least annually stating where the security deposit is held and the prevailing interest rate for each six-month period

Provide a tenant who is moving out with the same information, but for the duration of the entire tenancy

Notify the tenant of the date and time of the “move-out” inspection

Either return the security deposit with interest within 45 days after the tenant vacates the apartment or provide a written notice that the security deposit will be used to defray legitimate expenses

Refund the balance of the security deposit and interest within 30 days of that written notice. Provide the tenant with an itemized list of deductions and repairs.