I was reading my apartment lease recently, and I came across this sentence in the rent section:

"Lessee will pay a penalty of $16.00 for rent that is unpaid before the 6th of the month."

The paragraph previously states that the due date is the 1st of the month. So with that information, it feels like there are two interpretations, based on what "before the 6th of the month" refers to - the rent, or the paying of the penalty:

  1. Between the 2nd and 5th (before the 6th), pay a $16 penalty. After that it increases by $1 per day as stated in the next sentence.
  2. Pay no penalty at all until the 6th. This is the correct meaning (they've told me.)

Is there really any ambiguity? I think maybe if they meant the first meaning it would have said "that is paid before the 6th." Saying "unpaid before the 6th" may be a clear way of stating that you haven't paid until the 6th, at which point the penalty applies.

So is the first interpretation reasonable, or would it be an error on the part of the reader to interpret it that way? Either way I think they should probably reword it.

  • 2
    @Brian Nixon is right: whatever this may be in English, you need a lawyer to advise you what it means legally.
    – Robusto
    Jan 3, 2011 at 16:32

1 Answer 1


What you’re getting at is whether the clause means:

Before the 6th of the month, Lessee will pay a penalty of $16.00 for rent that is unpaid.


For rent that is unpaid before the 6th of the month, Lessee will pay a penalty of $16.00.

I interpret it with the second meaning on the basis of the structure:

Lessee will pay [penalty] for [violation].

To reach the first interpretation I’d expect it to be worded more like:

Lessee will pay a penalty of $16.00 for rent that is unpaid by the due date.

(And then continue with something like “From the 6th of the month the penalty will increase by $1.00 for each day the rent remains unpaid” to bring in the significance of the 6th of the month along with the additional provision that you mentioned.)

I think you’d need a contract lawyer to advise you whether it could be considered ambiguous in practice. And assuming you’re the lessee, it’s not in your interest to argue for the first interpretation anyway...

  • Exactly, and since they correct interpretation that the lessor uses is the second one, it's in my best interest, so I don't really care to argue.
    – Tesserex
    Jan 3, 2011 at 16:47
  • Reading it a few times it sounds like the intention is to give you a chance to have your checks clearing before the 6th. On the 6th you will be fined 16$ and if still not paid, on the 7th your fine will be 17$
    – mplungjan
    Feb 23, 2011 at 13:21

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