One of the most unfortunate situations you will deal with as a landlord is the demise of a tenant who was living in your property. Beyond the emotional aspects of such a loss, there are operational procedures that you, as the landlord, must follow. The procedures becomes very complicated when that tenant was living alone, without any roommates or spouse. When that happens, you can often find yourself in quite a difficult situation. Whether your tenant passed away inside the property or somewhere off-site, you have an immediate obligation to secure the tenant’s belongings. You must ensure they remain intact and safe, until turned over to someone identifiable as the next of kin or executor of the estate.
The time of a tenant’s demise is a very inefficient time to try to identify who’s authorized to act for your tenant. You will likely have some trouble identifying who the next of kin might be, or whether there is an executor of that tenant’s estate. Accordingly, it is good business practice to obtain such information directly from your tenant beforehand, referenced either in your application or the rental contract. That way, you will have the necessary information verified by your tenant. You’ll know exactly whom to relinquish the tenant’s personal property to, if your tenant unfortunately passes away in the course of their tenancy.
If you don’t already have that information, you should probably defer to public agencies. In Sonoma County, the Police or the Coroner’s Office are usually best able to locate and properly identify the next of kin. You probably don’t want to try to get results through the Sheriff’s Office; they are not as well-equipped or efficient in this particular type of investigation as the Police Department or the Coroner.
An alternative is to request a written “Affidavit of Small Estate” from anyone claiming to be next of kin. Any person attesting that he or she is the tenant’s next of kin should be able to create this form. An attorney experienced in probate issues can usually help expedite the process. Whether you receive an Affidavit or notification from one of the authorities referenced above, I strongly suggest you review the information with your attorney, to make sure you haven’t overlooked anything important.
Until you have proper documentation, as the landlord you are in a somewhat contentious situation. You cannot let anyone remove your deceased tenant’s belongings; you are obligated to keep them safe and secure, even if the notification process is delayed. Accordingly, you must re-key the property promptly upon being notified of the tenant’s death. You want the unit to be off limits to anyone who might wish to go inside and rummage through personal effects. Rekeying the property, acting as “guardian” of the deceased tenant’s things, and being prevented from quickly turning the property certainly might seem impractical, unfair and inefficient. That may be accurate, but it’s an unfortunate aspect of being a landlord. The blessing is that this type of tragic loss is fairly rare.
Managing rental property can be complex and challenging, especially in emotionally difficult circumstances. If you have questions or need help with this or any other topic, please contact us at DeDe’s Rentals. We will be happy to help you.