As a rental owner someday you may be faced with the difficult task of addressing the death of a lone occupant in your rental.  If faced with this situation you may be the first person contacted.  Will you be prepared to respond?  After the initial news is processed, what will be the next steps you will take?  Ultimately, how will you manage personal property owned by the deceased?  These questions can be handled  much easier by taking a few simple steps long before the day.
There are steps to be taken to ensure the situation is handled properly.  Law enforcement authorities will serve as your initial guide.  How to process and manage personal property  begins at the approval of these authorities.  First, possession and clearance to enter the property must be obtained.  After that, the owner or manager may be faced with how to manage personal property owned by the deceased.  Most of the time this issue is not addressed in the lease.

What to do about the deceased tenant’s personal property?

Many years ago our company was faced with this situation.   We were not as prepared to handle the personal property as we are today.  In this case  the deceased tenant’s Mother almost immediately wanted to clear out the home of items she believed were her possessions or of personal value to the family.   The problem was compounded when the tenant’s former girlfriend also staked her claim to items in the property.

personal property death of a tenantAbandonment versus Death

Most professionally prepared leases include an abandonment clause that allows the landlord to dispose of personal property when the rental is vacated.  Many rental owners assume this clause includes the event of death.  We became concerned about the legal repercussions of determining how to manage personal property due to death and not what is considered abandonment.

Manage Personal Property Distribution by Posting A Notice?

In many states abandoned personal property requires a posting to alert all potential claimants.  A proper legal notice must first be posted and after a set period of time (30 days is average) the rental owner can dispose of the personal property.  Open notice will delay getting the home available to lease.  It also does not solve the issues associated with multiple parties staking claims to personal property.  Lets agree that death of the tenant is not the same as abandonment.  The power of signed instructions from the deceased tenant provides guidelines to the owner or their manager to rely upon in making quick distribution decisions.

The Solution

Our solution was to not rely on the abandonment clause.  We asked for professional guidance to create a document, to be incorporated in the lease, that provided clarity for the issue.  The objective was to add instructions from the tenant to provide  direction for how to manage personal property of the tenant in the case of their death. Such instructions could also be useful in situations where both tenants were deceased, or even in a the case of incarceration.    The problems with relying on the abandonment clause extends beyond the lack of compassion shown to members of the deceased family.  There is also a potential liability risk to the owner for disposing the personal property.  In addition there are costs for removing the items.
If you wish to create such a document the following are the main components of our lease authorization document.

Identify an authorized party

The authorization allows the tenant to name a party to clear out personal property items in the event of their death, or incarceration, or other types of abandonment.  The form is also clear that the named party is who will be given access to the rental to control the distribution of the personal property unless owner or manager is under contrary orders from a court of law enforcement agency. A copy of a photo ID is required to confirm identify.

Specific Time Limit For Removal Created

After notice to the authorized party, a 10 day window is provided to schedule the removal of the personal property.  Removal must occur during a contiguous period of time (not 2 hours one day, and 1 hour the next).

Tenant Agrees To What Happens If Authorized Party Does Not Act

At the end of the 10 day notice period, the tenant agrees that the Manager may dispose of the property as they choose and as allowed by law.

Security Deposit Returns Addressed

One key component that was added to the authorization is the named party also becomes eligible to receive any security deposit refund.  Of course, any court actions could prevent this during the allowed settlement time.  But, if no legal orders are received, the authorized party will receive the balance of the deceased tenant’s security deposit.

What the Form Does Not Solve

There are inevitable problems that this form will not solve.  What happens if the designated party can’t be found or located?   The authorized party’s address, phone numbers and email addresses are provided.  The contact information should be sufficient during the term of the lease but there is always the chance it is not.  If the authorized party does not respond, the Manager will need to request a court to provide direction for disposal.  Waiting for such an order can take time. The request to the court should also include permission to store the items until specific orders are received.  The costs involved in moving and storing will be deducted from the security deposit settlement .
Another possible problem is the designee shows up to take claim to the property immediately.  Nobody should be allowed to have access to the property until law enforcement authorizes it.  The manager will need to inspect the property first before providing access to the designee.
Who pays the rent during this period?  This is why the time is limited to 10 days.  A new, short-term lease can be negotiated if the authorized party needs more time than ten days.
When dealing with such a sensitive topic no policy can take into account every possible situation.  This authorization provides direction for handling the event per the wishes of the deceased tenant.  Allowing a tenant to identify the people for release of their personal property (and security deposit) provides guidance to respond to requests for access.  This authorization also decreases the potential costs associated with this event.

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