10 Steps to Handle the Death of a Tenant

If a tenant dies in one of your rental properties it is imperative that you act quickly, professionally, and take all the necessary steps to assure your rights and protections. In the event that the deceased is the sole leaseholder, your involvement will be necessary to help repossess the property in a timely manner. In many cases, you’ll need to adhere to state regulations in addition to federal ones. Keep in mind that even though the leaseholder is dead, that doesn’t mean the lease invalid. The legal terms of a lease continue until their end date or until the executor of an estate voluntarily releases their hold on the rental property.

Your communication with the executor of the lease should begin immediately after you are informed of the tenant’s passing. The only time this gets complicated is when the body is not found for some time or you are the one to discover it. If you discover the body, you’ll need to first communicate with law enforcement. In the event of a timely or medically-induced death, their presence will be minimal. However, many unfortunate landlords are forced to perform damage control in the event of a homicide or prolonged investigation. Since a situation such as this could take days or months to complete and would require an entirely different course of action, it is best to seek legal counsel. For the most part, we’ll focus on how to hand the straightforward death of a tenant.

While police will reach out to the deceased’s next of kin, you’ll need to obtain the name and contact information of the estate executor. Oftentimes, this person is listed as the emergency contact on the rental agreement. If not the case, law enforcement can help arrange for you to be in communication with the next of kin.

Once you identify and reach out to the next of kin, or else whoever is handling the deceased’s estate, you’ll want to get a written statement of death. Be sure that this notice includes contact information for the executor of the lease. This notice serves as an official 30-day notice in regards to making payments on the outstanding lease.

Let the executor know their rights and responsibilities. Moreover, willingly provide copies of the lease and information regarding a payment due date. Upon notice of the tenant’s death, the estate usually has a timeframe of 30 days to pay for rent. Depending on the details of the lease, the security deposit may be garnished to pay for missed payments. While it may be your priority to regain your property and account for losses, it is important to remember the people you are dealing with have just lost a loved one and probably have little to no experience handling an estate. Gentle reminders are often needed to guide things into place. Initial noncompliance may be, in fact, a result of emotionally burdened decision making.

Secure the Property

Following a tenant’s death, it is not unusual for family and friends to seek entrance to the property. However, the terms of the rental agreement allow you to legally secure the property. This helps to prevent theft and also eliminates future disputes over missing property. If necessary, it is legal to change the locks and approve entry to the property at your discretion. You may also want to seriously consider accompanying any guests and keeping a journal of items removed from the property. It is perfectly normal for relatives to seek out photographs and mementos for a memorial service. However, the immediate removal of pricey property should draw concerns. As a landlord, it is your responsibility to protect your tenant’s property, whether dead or alive. Once you communicate with the executor, you can turn the keys over to them.

Collect Rent Payments

The rental agreement entitles you to rent payments throughout the entire length of the lease. However, a written notice exclaiming the tenant’s death serves as a 30-day notice till the end of the lease. This is a simple process in month-to-month rentals. However, things become more complicated when the lease is ongoing. In most cases, the executor will be just as enthusiastic about closing the deal, as they will no longer be responsible for making payments on an abandoned property. However, if you’re finding it difficult to acquire rental payments you may want to file a creditor’s claim. If the estate is caught up in probate, prepare to wait for a period of time before you receive your payment.

Utilize the Security Deposit

The lease for the rental property should clearly state the conditions of the security deposit. In most cases, you can use the deposit to pay for cleaning and repairs of the property. If this is the case, keep an itemized list of charges along with recipients. If there are any remaining funds, they will need to be returned to the estate executor. However, postmortem cleaning is often expensive.

Professional Cleaning

In the event that the tenant dies in the rental space, you’ll want to hire a certified biohazard cleaner. Death can leave behind nasty residue and bodily fluids that should be properly eradicated before you decide to market the rental. In the event that no one found the deceased body directly prior to the death, you may be stuck with the putrid and persistent smell of a decomposing body. Unfortunately, there is very little that can be done to eliminate such a smell other than wait.

Handling Abandoned Property

Occasionally, an estate does not have the means to visit and clear out the deceased apartment. Commonly, a tenant will have a will, which is handled by the executor, that establishes who is entitled to certain pieces of property. However, without a documented will, the furniture belongs to the next of kin. Provide a letter to the family stating how long they have to empty the rental space. Remember, they will be occupied by final arrangements and grief immediately follow the person’s death. While it may be your goal to re-rent the property, it is probably not their first priority.

The rules regarding abandoned property differ between states. For example, by California law, if a tenant’s next of kin does not claim the property within 18 days of an expired lease, the landlord must take responsibility. If the total value of the property is less than $300, the landlord may toss it. Any more and the items must be publically auctioned. When in doubt, brush up on your local laws.

Contact Insurance Company

If you possess landlord insurance, now would be a could time to contact your insurance company. While not always the case, the insurance may help cover some of the cost of cleanup, especially in the case of a homicide. There is no exception to a professional cleaning job in the event of a tenant’s death.

Maintain Relations

If your client lived in a building with multiple tenants, take your time to address their concerns. It can be alarming to know someone has passed away in a shared space. Letting them know the living space is being professionally clean and inform them of who will be entering the property in the coming days.

When dealing with the deceased next of kin, use the law as a compass. There are strict restrictions on who can enter someone’s property. Moreover, the lease obligates you to prevent unlawful access to a tenant’s property. While it may seem cruel to demand paperwork from or turn away mourning family members, unless the person is legally named on the lease or has a signed court order giving them control of deceased’s estate, they should not be permitted to enter the property.

Seek Legal Advice

If you’re concerned with interpreting the laws as they apply to your unique situation, you may want to consider seeking legal guidance. The penalty for disobeying landlord-tenant laws is usually a steep payment, usually, one that is double that of the security deposit. However, you can avoid costly mistakes and timely court appointments by steering clear of liabilities. Meanwhile, most conflicts can be settled without the need for a lawyer. By planning and executing a plan of action and keeping an open line of communication with the deceased’s heirs, you can be on your way to rerenting the rental into time.

If need be, you can file claims with local court outlets, such as creditor’s claims or eviction notices. However, do everything in your power to work out the issue without legal intervention. The last thing you want to add on to months of lost rent and cleaning fees is the price of a lawyer and court fees. Remember, most tenant deaths work themselves out over time. However, as long as you don’t abuse your power, legal routes offer an additional buffer.

To Market

Once you agreed to an end of the lease, request that the executor sign a termination of the lease. This will give you clear documentation as to the date the estate was no longer responsible for the property. In almost all cases, it is to the advantage of both the tenant’s family and the landlord to sign the agreement. It relinquishes the financial responsibilities and allows the landlord to move the space to the market. If a significant cleanup job is warranted, you may want to consider marketing the space while it undergoes such work. This will give you a greater window of time to find a replacement tenant and help you recoup your losses sooner.

In Conclusion

Landlords deal with their fair share of complicated situations. In fact, if you’re in the business is dealing with multiple tenants, you should probably accept the fact the tragedies can pop up at the most inconvenient times. While nothing can perfectly prepare you for a tenant’s passing, knowing your rights and the steps to take will help you expedite the process of recouping property and boost your chances of putting it back in the market without accumulating a significant loss of revenue.

Rest assured, even in the worst-case scenario, it will only be a matter of time before your rental property is back in your hands. However, common mistakes of landlords dealing with the death of a tenant include angering the tenant’s heirs and using unlawful tactics to regain control of their property. Doing this can cost you thousands of dollars in legal fees and be largely counterproductive. So remember, in the event of a tenant death, keep tidy records, act professionally in your relations to the tenant’s family, and remain diligent in following and utilizing the law.