Landlords in Southern California face a myriad of challenging issues. One of the most complicated situations a landlord faces is when a tenant dies and the next of kin cannot readily be found. Landlords need to understand what they can and cannot do when a tenant dies, including in a situation in which next of kin cannot be found.
Type of Lease Agreement
The first factor that must be considered when a tenant dies is the terms of the lease agreement. If there is a month to month lease, dealing with a situation in which a tenant dies in a rental property and next of kin cannot be found becomes easier. The lease remains in effect for the remainder of the month. At the end of the month, the lease expires.
In this type of situation, you need to ensure that the premises are reasonably secure during the remainder of the lease term. In order to achieve this objective, you might want to consider changing the locks to the rental property.
When the month ends, the best legal course for you to take is to tread the personal property on the premises as if it has been abandoned by the tenant. The specific procedures for you to take according to California law are discussed in a moment.
If the tenant had a year-long lease, the lease is in effect when the tenant dies and technology continues to the end of the term of the rental agreement. If the tenant does have surviving family members and had assets sufficient to warrant the opening of an estate, the estate becomes responsible for paying the rent on the residence.
When next of kin are not known or can’t be found, and if the tenant didn’t have assets sufficient to warrant the opening of an estate, you ultimately are best protected by treating the premises as if they have been abandoned. As was noted earlier, the specific steps to take in this regard are discussed in a moment.
If the tenant had assets and yet no next of kin is around, as the landlord of a deceased tenant, you are in the position of a creditor. Because you are in that position, you can file the appropriate paperwork with the court to seek the establishment of an estate, in part to deal with the lease and what is due and owing in the way of rent. The court will appoint an administrator to address these issues, including removing personal property from the rental property.
While it is possible the deceased tenant may have assets warranting the establishment of an estate, even in the absence of next of kin, that is not all that likely. The most common scenario when a tenant dies and no next of kin is identifiable is that the landlord will proceed without the assistance or intervention of the court.
Protecting the Tenant’s Property
Following the death of a tenant, a landlord has the responsibility to take steps to reasonably protect the property of the tenant located in the rental property. As mentioned previously, changing the locks is a desirable first step.
A landlord also needs to take care of admitting people into the premises. A landlord needs to be absolutely certain that a person who seeks admission to the rental property has a legal basis for doing so. The only real parties that have such a legal basis would be the duly appointed representative of the tenant’s estate and certain family members. The family members would include an adult child or parent of the deceased, in some situations.
With that said, a landlord needs to be able to clearly identify such a person before granting access. In addition, care must be taken when releasing any personal property to a family member. On the other hand, a duly appointed personal representative of a tenant’s estate has the legal authority to remove the property.
Using Abandonment Provisions of California Law
If a tenant with a year-long lease dies and next of kin cannot be found, and no estate is opened, you best protect your legal interests following the provisions of California law governing abandonment. In using the abandonment law, you must wait for rent to become 14 days past due. When that occurs, you issue what is known as a Notice of Belief of Abandonment. Tape a copy of the notice to the door of the rental property, mail a copy to the tenant at the address of the rental property, and mail a copy to any emergency contact you might have for the tenant.
The Notice is a standard form that provides a tenant with 18 days to remove his or her possessions or you will remove them from the premises. You can obtain the form from the California courts website at this link: Notice of Belief of Abandonment. The real intent in taking these steps is not only to comply with California law but to get the attention of the tenant’s next of kin if at all possible.
If no one contacts you, and the value of the property in the rental unit is reasonably deemed to be less than $300, you can dispose of the property in any way desired. If the value of the property exceeds $300, you must sell the property at a public auction. California law requires you to contact the county treasurer in the locale where the rental unit is located to make arrangements for this type of public auction. The Southern California county treasurers contact information is as follows:
Orange County Treasurer
Hall of Administration
333 West Santa Ana Boulevard
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Riverside County Treasurer
P.O Box 12005
Riverside, CA 92502-2205
Unattended Death of a Tenant
A truly challenging and oftentimes horrific experience is dealing with the aftermath of an unattended death of a tenant. An unattended death is one in which a tenant dies alone and his or her remains are not immediately discovered. In the case of a tenant, days or even weeks can pass before the remains are discovered.
There can be other reasons for hiring a professional biohazard cleanup as well. The more common ones include:
- Health issue or disease of tenant
By the very nature of an unattended death, the premises can be in a horrendous condition when the remains are discovered. In such a situation, a landlord or property manager needs to obtain the services of a reputable, experienced, tenacious biohazard cleanup specialist.
If an estate is opened up, a landlord can seek payment for the biohazard cleanup from the estate. In addition, a landlord can apply the security deposit to this expense.
Use of Security Deposit
You can utilize the security deposit to cover costs associated with the death of the tenant and the rental property. This includes paying from everything from unpaid rent to the costs associated with biohazard remediation at the property. In using the security deposit in this way, you must follow the terms of the lease agreement and California security deposit law.
Keep Next of Kin Information Current
A proactive step to seriously consider taking is keeping a tenant’s next of kin or emergency contact information up to date. If a tenant stays in a rental unit for more than one term, you should obtain updated contact information annually.