Death comes to all of us, and it may come to a tenant residing in your rental unit.
When dealing with the death of a tenant, you must remain sensitive to the family and friends of the deceased but also carefully follow legal procedures.
Review the Lease Agreement
Review your lease agreement for language referencing a tenant’s death. The agreement may not hold you liable for disposition or storage of the deceased’s personal property. Without that language, you may be stuck with the tenant’s belongings for a while if there’s an issue with finding the next of kin.
What you can and cannot do when a tenant dies is subject to state law.
Michigan: the law allows a landlord to take possession of the rental property within 28 days of the tenant’s death if certain conditions are met, such as filing a probate estate and attempting to contact the deceased’s representative.
Florida: the landlord may take possession of an apartment 60 days after the death if the rent is not paid and there are no other tenants in the unit — although the law doesn’t apply to Section 8 housing.
Contact your attorney to ensure you are acting legally.
It’s your responsibility to protect the tenant’s personal property until an executor is named.
You’re also protecting yourself, since you don’t want heirs accusing you of making off with any belongings. Here are the basics:
- Secure the property, locking all doors and windows. If legally permitted, change the locks.
- Take a video of the property and its condition upon your entrance.
- Do not let the deceased’s family or friends inside without accompanying them, and do not let them take anything.
- Once the court names an executor, provide that person with a key. The executor is in charge of the tenant’s personal property and is the individual you deal with regarding estate matters. Make sure you see proof of executor status.
With a month-to-month lease, official notice of the death generally ends the lease, although state law may vary. With a fixed lease, however, just because the tenant is dead does not mean the apartment is available for rental to a new tenant. Standard leases contain information about heirs and successors.
As the American Bar Association points out, the tenant’s estate continues to owe rent on the dwelling until it is officially released, and has the right to occupy the premises. In most cases, the executor will want to stop paying rent as soon as possible. An arrangement where the estate continues to pay the rent until a new tenant is found works out for both parties.
The security deposit may go toward rent, cleaning costs, and property damage.
- Provide the executor with a detailed list of all expenditures.
- If the security deposit is insufficient to cover costs, submit a claim to the estate through the probate court.
- If there are funds left over from the security deposit, send the executor a check for the amount made out to “The Estate of Deceased’s Name.”
The worst-case scenario for a landlord occurs when a tenant dies in the rental unit and the body isn’t discovered for several days. By that time, the decomposing body is letting off a powerful stench, making the unit uninhabitable for a while.
The putrefying odor permeates everything in the dwelling, and the unit will require professional cleaning.
The smell can linger for a while, even after extensive cleaning, and you’re unlikely to find another tenant until it’s gone.
Years ago, when I lived in New York City, the old man across the hall from me died. The smell was so bad that, weeks after his death and the cleanup, tenants had to cover their noses and mouths in the hallway en route to the elevator or stairwell. It was several months before the odor disappeared and the apartment was rentable again – even in very desirable Greenwich Village.
It’s a trying time for everyone when there’s a death of tenant. By knowing your role and acting in a professional manner, it will help smooth the way for all involved.