Some landlords, through a combination of excellent planning with a little bit of luck thrown in for good measure, are fortunate to have smooth experiences with their tenants. Most landlords, though, will find themselves with some kind of issue(s) to contend with along the way—whether it be vacancy issues, problematic tenants, persistent maintenance issues, or something else. The least fortunate of landlords will find themselves dealing with the worst-case scenario—a tenant who suddenly dies, is incarcerated, or becomes incapacitated. In this blog post, we will cover two main topics:

  • What can a landlord do to prepare in advance for such a circumstance?
  • What should a landlord do when something like this happens?

What can a landlord do to prepare in advance for such a circumstance?

  • The landlord should require the name and contact information for the tenant’s emergency contact(s). This information should be refreshed each time the tenant renews the lease.
  • The emergency contact form should specify who has the authority to remove the tenant’s personal belongings from the unit in the event of an unanticipated prolonged absence from the rental unit.
  • If possible, the lease agreement should specify a time frame to clear the apartment by the personal representative or emergency contact.
  • The landlord should have on hand the telephone number for the local police department or Sherriff’s office.
  • The landlord should have on hand the telephone number for a cleaning company that is licensed for the removal of biohazards.
  • The landlord should review his landlord dwelling policy and determine if it covers replacement cost reimbursement and/or loss of rent coverage (an unattended death may necessitate a longer time in between the deceased tenant and a new tenant).

What should a landlord do when something like this happens?

  • If the tenant requires emergency care, call 911 immediately.
  • Call the emergency contact(s) on the tenant’s rental agreement and advise them of the situation.
  • Even if you don’t allow or see pets—pet dishes/beds/toys/leashes/creates are a sure sign that there is a pet hiding somewhere. If pets will be there alone for more than a few hours, make sure they have sufficient food and water.
  • If there is no one available to take custody of the pet(s), take them to a no kill shelter if you are unable to adopt them yourself.
  • Change the locks on the doors.
  • Take photos or a video of the belongings that are in the unit to show what was there at the time of death/incarceration/incapacitation. The landlord also must provide access to the personal representative or emergency contact to take possession of the personal property of the tenant that has died, is incarcerated, or become incapacitated. Even if no such person comes forward to take possession of the property within an appropriate time frame (which may be mandated by the lease agreement and/or state law), the landlord may still have an obligation to box up and secure personal property. It may be the case that the estate escheats to the state and that the court will appoint an administrator to handle the personal effects.
  • Get legal possession of the property. The process of officially terminating the lease varies by state, so this will require research and possibly legal advice.
    • Often, after a tenant dies, the tenant or her estate does not pay rent and the landlord must initiate a failure to pay rent actionto reclaim possession of the rental.
    • Death does not automatically terminate tenancy so landlords must either go to court to regain possession or work out an agreement with the deceased’s personal representative/executor administering the estate. The steps that a landlord will take will depend on whether the personal representative continues to pay rent or not. If the landlord continues to receive rent payments, the landlord cannot terminate the lease.
  • Determine whether or not the state requires that you disclose that a death occurred on the property. In Maryland, it is not required to disclose that a homicide, suicide, accidental death or natural death occurred on a property.

There are other issues that will need to be addressed which will likely require research into state-specific laws. For example, what happens if the decedent was the Head of Household for housing support purposes? Does the landlord have the right to use the security deposit to cover the cost of damages and unpaid rent? How should the personal property of the tenant be handled if he dies, is incarcerated, or becomes incapacitated? It will never be easy to deal with the sudden absence of a tenant but preparing for the worst-case scenario will make the process less overwhelming.