A Plain-English Translation of Mass. Security Deposit Law – and Why Every Law Should be Written in Simple Language

By Eric Weld, MassLandlords, Inc.

Security deposit law in Massachusetts is a legal minefield for landlords. If there’s a single law that can illustrate the confusing, over-regulated danger zone that landlording in Massachusetts can be, it’s the state’s security deposit law.

Illustration of a computer screen with two web pages embedded, both from MassLandlords.net: one with the headline, “The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law, Explained,” and first paragraph of text; and two, a page showing a cut-out section of the security deposit law, on the left side, with a section, on the right, headlined, “What Does the Law Say About Handling Security Deposits?” and a paragraph of explanatory text.

The Massachusetts security deposit law is poorly written and inconsistent in its legal application. To help landlords and others navigate security deposit law, we provide an explainer of this confusing law, breaking it down paragraph by paragraph, with a plain-English translation aligned beside the original text. Image: cc by-sa MassLandlords.net.

If you think that’s exaggerated, read an account by this landlord who had to pay $17,000 for mishandling a security deposit, or this one, in which a landlord loses three times the security deposit for failing to sign a document. If not adhered to correctly, our security deposit law could knock a housing provider out of business with massive legal fees.

The problem is, the law is written shabbily, to the point that it’s not easy to follow for the best-intentioned landlords. For example, the law misuses certain terms, like “lease” and “termination of tenancy,” too broadly applying these words when different terminology (such as “rental agreement”) would be more suitable. As a result, judges are left presupposing what the law’s writers intended in their adjudications, leading to further confusion.

What we could use, for this law and many confusing laws, is a simple, easy-to-use translation from opaque legislative language into plain English.

Now we have one.

Our Security Deposit Plain-English Explainer

We’ve published a breakdown of the state security deposit law, chunking down its sections and explaining them in plain English. This page explains the law section by section, translating its legal language into straightforward words that landlords can apply in their business practice.

Our security deposit explainer literally takes the law paragraph by paragraph and provides simple explanations of its clauses.

In most cases, when a provision from the law is put into plain English, it takes far fewer words to explain what the law means than in its original form.

For one example, the law’s section regarding what fees a landlord is allowed to collect from a tenant can be explained using 33 fewer words than the original text, without sacrificing any meaning. In another example, the law’s text reads: “Nothing in this section shall limit the right of a landlord to recover from a tenant, who willfully or maliciously destroys or damages the real or personal property of said landlord, to the forfeiture of a security deposit, when the cost of repairing or replacing such property exceeds the amount of such security deposit” (54 words). Our translation: “If your tenant creates more damage than can be covered by the security deposit, you can sue them separately for damages” (21 words).

MassLandlords Proposed Laws, with Explainers

The Massachusetts security deposit law may be the one most needing explanation. But many laws could use a similar explanation that translates their meaning for citizens’ access, and more explainers are planned.

Similar to our security deposit explainer, we also published a series of explanations of bills proposed by MassLandlords at the beginning of the 193rd legislative session last January.

As with the security deposit law explainer, each bill proposal is broken down into separate paragraphs with a plain-English explanation listed beside it.

We provide plain-English explanations of our bill proposals on: increasing the state’s deleading credit; allowing landlords with LLCs or corporations to represent themselves in housing court; reforming the state’s unfair civil asset forfeiture law; forming a Climate Resilient Capital Task Force to study possibilities for defending or relocating state government infrastructure from climate-related flooding; and altering RAFT to pay multiple months of rental assistance in arrears or advance, while also making RAFT assistance public record.

The MassLandlords Plain English Bill

We feel so strongly about the need for laws to be better and more simply written that we have written a law proposal (not yet filed) that would mandate readability as part of the legislative process.

“An Act to Increase the Readability of Legislation aka the Plain English Bill” would codify the requirement that the meaning of any new or modified law would be “plain for all to see.”

Any time a law is written or amended, it would be required to be easy to read. Any added words would have to be underlined or clearly marked, deleted words would appear with strikethroughs or other indicators, definitions of terms would have to be repeated within the law.

As our explanation states: “We shouldn’t need a law degree to understand and follow the law.”

Why are Laws Written This Way?

Massachusetts isn’t alone in drafting and enacting laws that are difficult to read and understand. It has long been the norm for laws to be written in a legalese that only those who have studied law can access.

Cicero, a Roman lawyer more than 2,000 years ago and one of history’s most renowned philosophers of law, is partly known for his complex rhetoric. He may have been the first person to state what has become a long-running joke about why lawyers use such difficult-to-interpret language: to assure themselves of perpetual work and income.

Slightly more seriously, most laws are written by lawyers, either those who have become legislators or their aides. To become a lawyer requires countless hours of studying books of laws, which have been written in legal language for more than 200 years in this country. Those in the legal profession become adept at communicating using language they’ve deeply studied, and the legal community is used to imparting legal information with that vocabulary.

Also, writers of laws aim to be thorough and inclusive of circumstances. In that effort, some might argue, some over-writing and redundancy is necessary to allow for a range of conditions covered under a given law.

But laws aren’t only written for the legal community. The public also needs access to the laws by which it is governed.

“Making legal language more straightforward would help people understand their rights and obligations better, and therefore be less susceptible to being unnecessarily punished or not being able to benefit from their entitled rights,” noted Eric Martinez, lead author of a 2022 MIT study on why legal language is difficult to comprehend.

The study, which was published in the journal Cognition, concludes that laws don’t have to be written in this incomprehensible manner. Lawyers and legal writers, it says, often use confusing jargon and insular terms only familiar to others in the legal profession. They write more often using passive voice, a top culprit in obscuring a sentence’s meaning, and unconventional capitalization.

Most problematic, the study found that legal writers frequently use “center-embedding,” a technique in which they insert definitions of a sentence’s subject right in the middle of the sentence. The study offers this sentence as an example of center-embedding: “In the event that any payment or benefit by the Company (all such payments and benefits, including the payments and benefits under Section 3(a) hereof, being hereinafter referred to as the ‘Total Payments’), would be subject to excise tax, then the cash severance payments shall be reduced.”

The MIT study found that laws and other legal documents could be written more clearly, removing center-embedded clauses and replacing jargony terms, like “lessee” and “lessor” with “tenant” and “landlord” in one cited example. Simplifying legal writing does not compromise documents’ meaning, it concludes.

Landlords’ Legal Aid

We couldn’t agree more. If landlords and other citizens could easily read and understand the laws they are required to follow, such as the security deposit law, life and business would be easier to conduct.

For now, until we can get our legislators and their aides to write laws in plain, clear language, we offer these explanations, to help translate the meaning of laws.

If you find yourself dealing with a confusing security deposit situation, we invite you to read our explanation of the law, and potentially avoid landing in legal hot water.