Landlording & Rental Properties

What to Do if One of Your Tenants Passes Away in Your Rental

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A few months ago, one of our best tenants passed away unexpectedly. She was a dear, sweet, and feisty woman who had been with us from the beginning of our landlording journey. When she passed away, not only were we heartbroken, but we were unsure what our responsibilities were concerning the rental and her house full of personal property. So, we did some research on how we should proceed. What we found out was that there is a legal process the landlord must follow in order to reclaim their property. It's important that you research your state's particular laws in the event you are faced with the death of the tenant; however, the following is how a landlord in Washington State currently handles this type of situation.

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What if the Tenant Passes Away in Your Property?

If a tenant passes away at the residence itself, the police and coroner will secure the home, conduct an investigation if necessary, remove the body, and notify relatives. If there are other tenants still in the home, the landlord and remaining tenants can resume their arrangement as before. The deceased tenant’s belongings become the responsibility of the remaining tenants, and the landlord does not need to get involved.

Related: How to Handle an Untimely Tenant Death as a Landlord

If the deceased tenant is the only tenant and they passed away at some other location, the landlord should secure the premises and attempt to get in contact with the executor of the estate since the rental becomes the estate’s responsibility at this point. The landlord should not give anyone access to the tenant’s personal belongings unless they are the executor.


5 Steps to Take if No Executor Steps Forward

Should no executor be forthcoming, once the rent is in default, the landlord may proceed exactly as if the house were abandoned by:

  1. Posting notice
  2. Changing the locks and taking immediate possession
  3. Itemizing and storing the tenant’s belongings until the required amount of time has passed
  4. Selling, disposing of, or donating (to family or charity) the tenant’s property after the required amount of time has passed, and
  5. Setting aside any overages from the sale after paying the deceased tenant’s debts to the landlord (for rent, storage of the tenant’s be- longings, and any other costs incurred by the landlord as a result of the tenant’s demise) for one year should an executor come forward during the time period.

Related: The Top 5 Questions to Ask Every Potential Tenant on the Phone

Once again, this is how a death of a tenant is handled in Washington. The specific legal process in your area is likely different. The death of a tenant is a sensitive subject and needs to be handled very carefully to avoid mistakes that put the landlord in a vulnerable position. The last thing any landlord wants in this type of situation is a lawsuit from the deceased tenant’s family. The point of this section is simply to make you aware that you need to do your research in this type of situation to be sure you are proceeding legally and to reclaim your property as quickly as possible.

[This article is an excerpt from Brandon Turner’s The Book on Managing Rental Properties. Get the full book here!]

Landlords: Have you ever dealt with the death of a tenant? How did you handle it, and did any issues arise during this process?

Let me know your experiences with a comment!

Brandon Turner is an active real estate investor, entrepreneur, writer, and co-host of the BiggerPockets Podcast. He is a nationally recognized leader in the real estate education space and has taught millions of people how to find, finance, and manage real estate investments. Brandon began buying rental properties and flipping houses at age 21, discovering he didn’t need to work 40 years at a corporate job to have “the good life.” Today, Brandon is the managing member at Open Door Capital. With nearly 300 units across four states under his belt, he continues to invest in real estate while also showing others the power and impact of financial freedom.
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Good to know – had that happen once when I owned a two family flat and had a tenant living above me – it was an older gentleman who only had one sister – she left me to deal with all the possessions – it sure was a mess too!
    Tim Boehm Investor from Tillamook, Oregon
    Replied about 4 years ago
    I just hope I die first!!!!
    Eric Armstrong Investor from Wilmington, Delaware
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Here is a very different expierence. Friend, who was working out of town and had an apt, was murdered via a gunshot. The landlord wouldn’t let his wife, or anyone, in the apt to collect his things. Wife couldn’t prove she was executor because there was no registered will, but it was in apartment she wasn’t allowed to access. After 2 months, had to go through process to become executor, 2 months rent ($4,500) , agreeing to forfeit security deposit ($2,250) and excessive blood professionally removed and cleaned ($2,000), she finally gained access to apt to pack personal items. Landlords were pieces of sh!t.
    Karen O. from NYC, NY
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Is the landlord POS because he/she didn’t let the wife in? Did the LL know she was the wife? Was she a resident of the apt? And if not, what would’ve happened if the wife was not the executor? Could LL be sued by executor or estate if wife had taken something she had no claim to?
    Jerome Kaidor Investor from Hayward, California
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Another wrinkle here in California – if someone dies in your apartment, you must inform any prospective tenants for the following five years.
    Dottie Matheson Investor/Realtor from Folsom, California
    Replied about 4 years ago
    I believe the time frame is 3 years to diaclose someone down on the property.
    Laura H. Investor from Peculiar, Missouri
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Aaaaaand there goes one more thing into my “this is going to give me nightmares” box. Thanks, Brandon! In all seriousness, it’s great to have folks like you sharing your stories. This is one thing that was absolutely not on my REI radar.
    William Shadbolt from Mercer Island, Washington
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Brandon, you’ll find that in WA state the law was changed last year to deal with this situation. Prior to 2015 you had to go through the abandonment process or eviction for a person you knew was dead. Now you can have your tenants to sign a “Resident’s Designee Notice” which nominates who can deal with their possessions on death if they are the sole occupant. The Rental Housing Association of WA (full disclosure – I’m VP of the BOD) successfully lobbied for this change in the law as very few tenants have wills and therefore executors. Even those that do, it can take month’s for the courts to grant probate. The fact is that the relatives of the deceased person (if any) and the rental property owner both want to get the personal possessions out of the unit and the owner wants to re-rent it. The change in the Residential Landlord Tenant Act is in RCW 59.18.590 and 595. If you want more details, send me a private message. If there are other members in States without something similar, I’m more than happy to give the details about the bills and law for them to ask their lawmakers or industry groups to change the law in their State.
    Adrian Stamer Real Estate Investor & Agent from Richmond, Virginia
    Replied about 4 years ago
    Happy holidays