How to Handle an Untimely Tenant Death as a Landlord

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Death is not something any of us likes to think about. Unfortunately, though, none of us are going to get out of here alive. I know this is not the most uplifting topic, but as landlords and business owners, we need to not only be prepared in the case of our own departure, but we also need to be prepared and know what to do in case one of our tenants should pass away.

While this article contains some general principles that I think can apply anywhere, I do work and am most familiar with Tennessee law. Please be aware that your state laws could vary, so do become familiar with them.

Related: 5 Sticky Real Estate Situations That Offer Investment Opportunities

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Who Has Possession?

When a tenant passes away, the landlord needs to remember the legal concept of possession.

You as the landlord gave the tenant possession of your property in return for the specified terms in your lease. Your tenant’s death (unless your state specifically allows it) does not automatically return possession of the apartment to you.

Think of it this way: your tenant likely had a TV in their living room. That TV was in their possession. Can you now just go in and take the TV because they have died? No. And you likely cannot do it with the property, either. Possession is now likely in the hands of the deceased’s estate.

So What Should a Landlord Do?

First, I would say that you should be very careful and tactful. After all, a tragic event has occurred. Have some sympathy for the deceased and if they are in contact with you, their friends and/or family.

Second, you need to make sure that your property is secured and hazard free. Here in Tennessee, our landlord/tenant laws specifically grant the landlord the right to enter a property if a tenant is “deceased, incapacitated or incarcerated.” I also believe a landlord could justifiably utilize the emergency provisions of the law to legally enter the property.

Death is after all usually a “sudden, generally unexpected occurrence.” But you need to tread carefully here. Remember that you technically do not have possession, and this can create problems later on down the road if you are not careful.

Here is why. Families can do very strange things when someone dies and they are grieving. They may not be thinking rationally, or they may be misinformed. Further, when an estate and/or money is in the picture, people can get downright greedy and mean. I have seen more than one family split up over money, and that is not something you want to get involved in.

So yes, enter the property. Make sure the doors and windows are locked. Make sure the heat is on in the winter. See to it that pets are taken care of. Other than that, do not touch anything unless you absolutely have to in order to secure the property. Further, take someone with you as a witness — or at the very least, use your smartphone to take a video of your entry.

Why? To cover your butt, that’s why. The last thing you need is some friend or family member coming along and accusing you of stealing something. Can’t you just hear the grieving mother say, “Well, you were the only one who has been in there. Where is her grandmother’s diamond ring?”

So make sure your property is safe and secure, but for now, leave everything else alone.

Getting Possession Back

Your next concern after making sure the property is secure is getting it back into a cashflowing position. After all, you likely have a mortgage, and you definitely have various other expenses associated with the property.

Here again, tread carefully, especially if there is family involved.

Most families are going to be understanding of your position. They realize you want to get your property back and get it re-rented. But you need to realize that this may be a very difficult process for them. A mom might have to go through her child’s things or vice versa. Work with the family. Give them some time and be gracious.

How much time? That is up to you. I would at least allow them to get the funeral and associated affairs cleared up before beginning to ask them about clearing out the property. Every one of these situations will be different, and you will just have to judge each one. Of course, if they need more time, they can always pay the rent. Let them know that option is available.

Once the property is cleared and cleaned to your satisfaction, ask the next of kin to sign a “release to the rights of possession” form. Once that is completed, you are then in pretty good shape at that point to go ahead and re-rent the property.

But what if no one shows up to claim the estate? What do you do then?

First, you need to realize there is always a next of kin; they just may not be aware of it. And you never know if or when they might show up. They could show up several years from now looking for their relative’s diamond ring. So again you need to protect yourself and gain possession legally by using either the eviction or abandonment provisions of your local landlord/tenant laws.

Obviously, if the tenant has passed, they will not be paying the rent. So you could file for eviction and regain possession that way. I think that this is a rather messy and expensive process. I would prefer to use the abandonment provisions.

Related: Did Someone Die in This House? The Answer Could Save You Thousands

Here in Tennessee, simply wait fifteen days until after the rent is past due. Then, post a notice of abandonment (I know it is a bit silly, but we are trying to cover our butts here), and 10 days later you can go in and clean out and prepare it for re-rental. It is fairly easy. The only catch is you have to store possessions found in the property for 30 days. But if after that time no comes looking for them, they are yours to do with as you please.

Conclusion

The death of a tenant can raise some tricky family and legal issues. You as a landlord have to be prepared for such an event since people die everyday. Be sure you are protecting yourself by following your local laws, and remember that a little kindness in these types of situations can go a long way.

Ever have a tenant pass away? How did you handle this situation?

Let me know with your comments.

About Author

Kevin Perk

Kevin Perk is co-founder of Kevron Properties, LLC with his wife Terron and has been involved in real estate investing for 10 years. Kevin invests in and manages rental properties in Memphis, TN and is a past president and vice-president of the local REIA group, the Memphis Investors Group.

21 Comments

  1. I just had a tenant die this year. She was only 51. I wrote a post about it on my own blog. The remaining tenants, 18 and 22 year old son, and move-in ex-husband father of the kids are still there.

    I consider it a huge weak link in my rents now, it was rock solid before. I am glad I did not have to evict someone right after the funeral…

  2. I JUST HAD A TENANT DIE LAST MONTH–right away the two remaining tenants wanted to move two other people in “to help with the rent now that Mom is gone”. –it was a woman living with two 30-ish sons– We didn’t want this situation, as it would go from a family home to a bachelor house with 4 single men — so –we sent them notice that the new tenants would have to pass credit, criminal and landlord checks, would have to meet us in person, must have employment that could be verified, and that the RENT WOULD GO UP. Fortunately for us they chose to move out. I have had three deaths in the last ten years, and fortunately the remaining tenants have always chosen to leave–never had a death IN a house, thank goodness!

    • Kevin Perk

      Joann,

      Very wise of you to stick to your rental criteria, even in a sad situation. We as landlords have to remember to always stick to out criteria like you did. When we do not, that is when problems arise.

      Thanks for reading and for the comment,

      Kevin

  3. Peter Silvester on

    This is very needed and great advise. Here in Los Angeles, I have been involved with many sales of property where the owner has passed on. Some times there is hoarding issues.
    When a landlord has to deal with this, it is costly and messy.
    After all the mess is cleared, if landlords or heirs wish to have a referral for house clearing services, I can provide that referral. I am not speaking of physical mess here.
    Good luck to all.

  4. I had a tenant die unexpectedly in one of my units in June of this year. He was in his mid 40’s and unfortunately died due to a drug overdose. Let me preface with saying my units aren’t in the “slums,” and invested with drug addicts, this tenant was just a one-off. When I got the call from the police that morning, I went to the unit and called my lawyer right away. The cops said otherwise, but my lawyer told me to immediately go in to the unit and secure it by locking the windows and changing the locks. The cops also did a walk-through to make sure there weren’t any dangerous objects. The family was on-site quickly after and they were willing to clean his items out within 5 days. Unfortunately, a lot of “junk,” i.e. bedding, furniture, etc. was left behind that I had to take to the dump. I took a video with my smartphone to document what was being brought to the dump. Not a great experience but since I’m early in my landlording career, the knowledge gained from the event will be helpful. I’m a landlord in Connecticut.

    • Kevin Perk

      Bill,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I can attest to the fact that, even with all of our screening measures, some just slip through sometimes.

      I hope you at least kept the security deposit since you were left with a bunch of junk. I would have insisted they take everything and sweep the place clean. But at lease it sounds like most everything worked out in your situation. Good job on contacting your attorney and documenting everything.

      Again thanks for sharing your experience,

      Kevin

  5. This topic brings up a point about utilizing the application. We have a section titled, “Personal Reference or Emergency Contact” exactly for this scenario. We also update it each year as the lease is renewed, so the contact information is fresh.

  6. Jennifer Kurtz on

    Emergency contact info is very important here but the ambulance, police, and coroner should obviously be the first to be called and arrived if the tenant is on site. I had a lady pass away 2 years ago. She was not very old, probably in her 50s, and lived alone
    She had a relative (cousin or nephew) that always came to pick her up for doc appointments and such. One day when no one heard from her for a day or two, he came over and was really upset that they key that she made for him for emergencies no longer worked (because the exterior door locks to that building had recently been changed). It was very out of character for this lady so we did a well check and called an ambulance. She was in her kitchen. Sadly she had passed. Word got out to the family and people were showing up out of the woodwork, saying who they were, what they needed, etc. Of course we can not determine that, and she be left for probate. She did not have a will. There was an attorney assigned to the probate case to come to the unit to look for life insurance or anything like that. Our attorney advised us to change the locks (in case any other family members had key copies) and only open the unit by request of the court. It took at least 60 days to get through probate. The court did give us a small sum of money for her estate still possessing the unit. Once given the green light, we could take care of business and get it back online. I will never forget that experience. She was a sweet lady.

    • Kevin Perk

      Jennifer,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience. Sounds like you went though a lot with this one, and like you said I am sure you will never forget it.

      Landlords need to realize like you did that they do not have possession when a tenant dies, the estate does and sometimes a probate court will get involved. 60 days sounds pretty good to me since the courts were involved. I am glad things worked out for the best.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment. I do appreciate it,

      Kevin

  7. I had a 32 year old tenant die unexpectedly. She was the mother of 5 children. The children’s grandmother took the kids and we decided that since the deceased had no assets other than what was in the apartment, that the best way to handle things was informally. Grandma removed everything and left the place spotless. We gave her a check for the deposit, and everyone was happy. Probably not legal, but 20 years later and now we are renting to one of the “kids”. She remembers us and her grandmother doing the right thing rather than letting the courts muck things up. We were lucky enough to have things work out that way.

    • Kevin Perk

      Michelle,

      No, probably not legal, but a good solution considering the circumstances. Sounds like everyone was trying to do the right thing. I might have had Grandma sign a release of possession form just for a bit of added protection. I am glad it worked out for you and thanks for showing how a bit of kindness can go a long way.

      Thanks also for reading and sharing your story,

      Kevin

  8. Hello Kevin,

    I have a question. My mother’s roommate just passed two days ago. They live in TN and signed the lease November 8th.

    Now that my mother’s roommate is gone, she can no longer afford the rent. Can you tell me if it is possible for her to get out of the lease and possibly ask for 1/2 of the deposit back as well? Would the lease have to specifically state this or will I need to look at the TN state laws?

    Thank you,
    Melissa

    • Kevin Perk

      Melissa,

      Much will depend on the landlord and what is in the lease.

      Go talk to the landlord asap and explain the situation. Most landlords would be willing to work with your mom so go and ask and see if anything can be worked out.

      Good luck,

      Kevin

  9. Hello,
    After a brief illness my mother passed away suddenly. I was her in home care provider, and was well acquainted with her land lord. She had a small studio for low income tenets. The landlord has changed the locks before I was able to remove my mothers possessions. She passed on 10/7/15. There is no will. What documents do I need to provide the landlord to obtain access to her apartment. The landlord is now saying it is legal matter. California is where this is taking place.
    Any help will be very much appreciated.

    Thank you,
    Rochelle

  10. My mother passed on 6/7/2016. She had already paid June’s rent. We got in and cleaned the interior. I paid for a dumpster emptied it once and filled it half way. Told the landlord to fill it with anything else he didn’t want. Left furniture and explained if they didn’t want them to contact good will. We were out by the 14th. Didn’t ask for refund of rent. Owner asked me to keep utilities on till end of month at my expense and called me on my way home across country because the dumpster was full and they needed another. I was livid and told them they would need to arrange it on their dime. Was I wrong here??

    • Kevin Perk

      Suji,

      I have no idea if you were wrong without knowing the terms of the lease or your state’s laws. Sounds like you tried to be accommodating but you did leave furniture in the unit for the landlord to dispose of. I might have asked you for a bit more help depending on the circumstances. Or, I might not have.

      Thanks for reading and commenting,

      Kevin

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