No one likes thinking about death, especially when the reality that is human mortality rears its ugly head in your daily life. But the truth of the matter is that as a landlord, you may face the unfortunate event of a tenant’s unexpected death at an inconvenient time.
How are you supposed to handle this? What are the legal implications? What are your responsibilities regarding the tenant’s belongings? Let’s talk about how to conscientiously manage an unfortunate situation as a property owner.
The Question of Legal Possession
The legal concept of possession is a bit complicated. As the landlord, when the tenant takes on a lease as specified by your terms, he or she takes on possession of your property. When your tenant dies, the landlord doesn’t automatically regain legal possession. Rather, the property now “belongs” to the estate of the deceased.
While this may seem counterintuitive, if you think about it, it does make sense. For example, if the tenant had a home office with a desktop computer, you can’t simply go in and take the computer now that your tenant has passed on. In order to regain possession, you need to take a few steps – and remember to use great care and tact when doing so.
You may legally enter the property, however. Ensure all areas are locked, and take a video and/or have someone with you as a witness. If a legal battle ensues with the deceased’s family, you’ll be covered as long as you follow all necessary protocol.
What if the deceased had a lease agreement? For example, if he or she signed a yearlong lease but you’re only 6 months in, the tenancy continues until the end of the agreement. Responsibility for the lease passes on to the tenant’s executor, as mandated by the court. The executor’s responsibility then ends 30 days after rent was last paid by the tenant.
An executor or next-of-kin should provide you with written notice of the tenant’s passing as soon as possible. You’ll want as much documentation as possible if you later need to recuperate any monetary loss or deal with the legal follow-up. You’ll want to keep all documents (or copies of documents) on file – or have a property manager do this for you – because as with any agreement, a paper trail will make sure you don’t come up on the short end of the stick.
Rent and the Security Deposit
The deceased’s survivors and heirs are not liable for any unpaid rent or damages caused by the tenant. However, the tenant’s estate can be held liable for the unpaid rent, either for the remainder of the lease or until the property is rented out to another tenant. Any security deposit money can be used to cover unpaid rent and other damages until it is gone, after which the estate takes over. You must petition the estate in order to make such charges.
The property owner must, in good faith, make every possible effort to re-rent the property as soon as possible, and the lease cannot be charged to the tenant’s estate once the unit has been rented again. Charges for repairs and cleaning can also be made to the tenant’s estate. As with any tenant, however, you may only charge for any damages caused by that particular tenant. Preexisting problems and normal wear and tear are not applicable.
Should the estate be in probate, you will need to submit a creditor’s claim specifying the exact amount of money you need to cover the remainder of the tenant’s debts. Otherwise, you can contact the executor directly.
The Tenant’s Belongings
After the tenant’s passing, you may secure the rental property to prevent the deceased’s possessions from being stolen, especially during the period of confusion while the estate is being settled. You may want to change the locks, making it so that any friend or family members who want to enter must do so through you. You have the right to ask for valid photo identification for anyone who visits. They must sign an agreement that they will not take anything, and you may want to accompany them onto and through the property.
This will prevent you from becoming liable should any disputes arise about the deceased’s estate. Once you have documentation that the court has appointed an executor, you can hand off the keys and allow him or her to manage the items remaining on your property.
Handling the Situation with Sensitivity
Protecting yourself legally doesn’t mean you need to be cold or callous to the survivors. In all likelihood, they’re caught up in the confusion that often comes hand in hand with grieving. Offer as much support as you’re able.
If the tenant’s neighbors inquire, you may want to inform them of the death and let them know that everything is being handled properly, procedurally and with care. You may also want to as many questions as you can without compromising the privacy of the deceased or the survivors.
However, you are not required to disclose information about the previous tenant’s death to new tenants to whom you re-rent the property.
Get Help from Green Residential
This may seem like a lot of steps, but it’s important to take every possible protective measure to avoid becoming liable for any problems that may arise. The last thing you need is to get caught in the crossfire of a prolonged legal battle over the estate, when all you really want to do is get the property prepared for re-rental. As such, it can be helpful to have a knowledgeable, resourceful and compassionate property manager on your side.
At Green Residential, we’re well-versed in the world of property management – including handling the most unexpected and difficult situations faced by today’s property owners. From comprehensive tenant screening to reliable home maintenance and inspection, we cover the whole gamut of needs for property owners. If you encounter an unpleasant surprise as a landlord, the right support system can make a world of difference.
For more information, to receive a free rental analysis, or to speak with one of our customer care experts, contact us today.