When a tenant dies, knowing how to proceed with the duration of the lease agreement or rental payments, returning or withholding a security deposit, and relocating your tenant’s personal property is crucial to avoiding stress and legal liabilities. Death isn’t a fun topic to talk about – but knowing your rights to regain the rental property is a big part of being a landlord. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared just in case.
Be aware that you will need to adhere to your state and local laws. Some states, like California, require landlords to follow specific steps to regain a property after a tenant’s death – and these requirements can vary depending on where your property is located. While this article will contain some general principles that apply to developing policies and procedures for managing deceased tenants that lived alone (or were the sole person on the lease agreement), review your state’s laws and talk to your attorney before applying any new language to your lease.
Acquiring Rental Payments or Terminating the Lease
When a tenant passes away the responsibility of the lease agreement falls upon the deceased’s estate (which is oftentimes handled by the tenant’s family – such as their spouse, child/children or parent). Moving forward after a tenant has died depends on the terms of the lease agreement, your state’s laws, and any negotiations made between you and the executor of the tenant’s estate that can be proven using verifiable means (documentation, most likely).
Quick Tip: Your lease should have an emergency contact section, in case you discover your tenant has died. If you want extra insurance, add a separate section where your tenants can add the contact information of their executor of their state or ‘next of kin’.
Generally, the estate is responsible for paying all the rent owed to the landlord. Since they’ll be cleaning out the rental property and dealing with the tenant’s possessions, they may choose to negotiate when the lease ends. If you want to end the lease, the official written notice of your tenant’s death can act as a 30-day notice.
Quick Tip: Make sure you get an official written notice that the tenant had died from the estate! This might take some time as the tenant’s family processes the death, so be patient and ask politely.
As we said above, the estate is responsible for the lease agreement. This includes all the rental payments until the lease expires. That being said, most estates (or family members) don’t want to pay for an empty rental, and you might want to get new tenants into your property. If this is the case, negotiate with the executor of the estate. This could mean a situation where the executor pays the rent until you’re able to screen applicants and start renting to new tenants.
Handling the Security Deposit
You should handle the security deposit like you do normally – to cover unpaid rent, property damages, or other costs that were established in your lease. The remaining deposit should be given to the executor of the estate. Unfortunately, if the security deposit doesn’t cover all the damages, you’ll have to work with the executor to cover the cost(s).
Providing Access to your Tenant’s Property
Most states give the landlord the right to secure the property (a.k.a. changing the locks) once you find out about the tenant’s death. If the executor of the lease wishes to enter your rental property, work with them to set up a time to give them access to the deceased tenant’s possessions. If possible, accompany them to the property.
Quick Tip: If you believe there might be disputes surrounding the estate, consider writing down a list of everything removed and keeping track of who accessed the property and when.
In this tricky situation, remember that patience and kindness can go a long way when negotiating with the tenant’s family or estate executor. Moving forward, be sure to look up your local laws and give yourself a little personal time. Loosing someone, no matter how close you were, is tough and you deserve a second to grieve as well.
Have you had to deal with a tenant passing away? How did you handle the situation?
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