Landlords face a multitude of problems when it comes to their legal and contractual relationships with tenants. One of the most complicated and challenging of situations is when a tenant dies and no next of kin can be found. Sadly, this oftentimes occurs when a tenant dies in what is known as an unattended death. An unattended death is not just a situation in which a tenant dies alone but is one in which the remains of the tenant are not immediately discovered.
As a result, a landlord has the immediate task of dealing with biohazard cleanup at the property. Once that extremely challenging issue is addressed (ideally with the assistance of a professional biohazard remediation specialist), a landlord then faces the task of legally dealing with property left by the tenant at the premises, among other issues.
Who Is Responsible for Finding Next of Kin?
When a tenant dies at the rental property, law enforcement must be called to the scene. The police or sheriff will contact the county coroner, who will also come to the rental property.
The deceased person’s remains will be transported to the coroner’s office, usually for a forensic examination and an autopsy. The coroner, in conjunction with law enforcement, will make the best effort to identify and find next of kin. If they succeed in doing so, a landlord will be contacted with this information.
If next of kin are not found, the county makes burial arrangements for the deceased tenant. The landlord does have some legal responsibility to make a reasonable effort to notify next of kin about the death of a tenant and property left behind at the rental premises. The steps a landlord must take in this regard are discussed in a moment.
If a tenant dies in a setting away from the rental property, the coroner and law enforcement remain primarily responsible for finding next of kin, if possible. If a tenant has been hospitalized, the medical center staff will have already started this process.
A landlord is not likely to be notified directly of a tenant’s death away from the rental property. Thus, a landlord or property management company does need to maintain some oversight about the tenant being at the rented residence.
California Escheat Laws: Legally Disposing of a Deceased Tenant’s Property
As is the case with all states in the country, California has what is known as escheat laws. These are laws that dictate what happens to the property of all types if the owner cannot be found. A situation in which escheat laws come into play is when a tenant dies and the next of kin cannot be located. The matter of finding relatives of a tenant was discussed previously.
A landlord doesn’t have the legal right to take full possession of the personal property of a tenant. Similarly, a landlord must follow California law as it pertains to the security deposit a tenant posted when renting a property. In other words, a landlord must fully itemize how some or all of the security deposit was utilized following a tenant’s death. (This can include cleaning the apartment, including biohazard cleanup if a tenant suffered an unattended death and the body was not promptly discovered.)
If for some reason a portion of the security deposit remains, the landlord cannot simply pocket that for his or her use. Rather, it will also be subject to California escheat laws.
The escheat laws provide a vehicle for which a deceased tenant’s property is dealt with if no next of kin can be found or identified. The escheat laws come into play is a tenant dies and leaves behind the personal property in a rental unit with a value of over $300. The landlord and tenant laws of the state of California reference what a landlord specifically must do in this type of situation.
The landlord follows the procedures set forth in the California law governing abandonment. A Notice of Abandonment is secured to the door of the rental property. The hope is that a relative of the tenant, or someone else with knowledge of how to contact a family member, may see the notification. The notice provides 18 days for the property to be lawfully claimed. The notice can be obtained at the California courts website at this link: Notice of Belief of Abandonment.
If a landlord is not contacted, the escheat process technically begins. The property is sold at auction under the supervision of the county treasurer. The proceeds are then held by the state of California for a period of five years. This allows time for a lawful heir of the deceased person to make a claim to obtain the money received from the sale of the deceased tenant’s property. The existence of unclaimed property can be undertaken by clicking on this link.
The Southern California County Treasurers can be reached at:
Orange County Treasurer
Hall of Administration
333 West Santa Ana Boulevard
Santa Ana, CA 92701