California residential landlords face a myriad of problems at any given point in time. Some of the more complicated situations for a landlord occur when a tenant dies by suicide. The situation becomes more complex when the tenant that dies by suicide has a surviving relative but that relation is unable or unwilling to deal with the deceased person’s property at the rental unit. 

There is no simple black and white procedure for a landlord to follow in this type of scenario. Rather, upon an examination of a number of components of California residential landlord and tenant law, some best practices can be derived. 

Before proceeding with our discussion of best practices for a landlord to follow when a tenant dies by suicide and a surviving relative is unable or unwilling to tend to the renter’s property, a reader needs to understand that the information provided here is not intended to be legal advice. Because of the potentially complex nature of this type of situation, a landlord is likely well-served consulting with an experienced attorney with a background in California residential landlord and tenant law. 

Case Study Involving a Tenant Who Died by Suicide With a Surviving Child Unable or Unwilling to Deal With Renter’s Property

An actual case involving a landlord in a situation involving a tenant who died by suicide helps to illustrate the complexities of that type of situation and the steps a tenant needs to take to lawfully deal with issues like disposing or a deceased renter’s property. In this case, a male tenant committed suicide in an Orange County, California apartment. The tenant lived alone and the landlord did not have immediate access to information about whether or not there were any surviving family members. 

The coroner was able to ascertain that the deceased renter had a surviving daughter. The landlord was able to connect with the daughter, only to learn that she didn’t want to deal with her father’s property and was unable to do so. This left the landlord in a quandary as to what needed to be done to protect the landlord’s interests without violating any legal obligations in regard to the rental property itself and the tenant’s property in it. 

Secure Deceased Tenant’s Personal Property

A number of steps need to be taken in the aftermath of a tenant dying by suicide. If the landlord discovers the death, or is a participant in that discovery, as is oftentimes the case when a renter lives alone, the police need to be called immediately. The police, together with the country coroner, will investigate the scene in order to make a preliminary determination that the death was in fact by suicide and not an accident or homicide. 

Once police and the coroner’s office investigators have finished with the scene, the property is released to the landlord in the scenario described in the case study because there is no other resident in the premises. Depending on the manner in which the suicide occurred, biohazard remediation may be necessary. This can be the case if the suicide is by gun or sharp instrument. It can also be the case if the death was not immediately discovered, a situation known as an unattended or undiscovered death.

In the event of a tenant that dies by suicide, a landlord is wise to collect contact information from not only the police investigators at the scene, but from the coroner’s office representative as well. The coroner will be involved in trying to find the next of kin. If a landlord lacks next of kin information, the coroner may end up being a valuable resource in this regard.

Once the investigation is completed, and after biohazard remediation, if that was necessary, a landlord needs to fully secure the rental property and the possessions of the deceased tenant contained in the unit. Typically, this process includes changing the locks on the unit. 

California law permits a landlord to charge for the “storage” of the property at the unit at a rate equal to the daily pro-rata cost for rent. A landlord can also arrange to have the tenant’s property transported to and maintained in a storage facility. 

As part of securing the property, a landlord needs to inventory it. A landlord can make a paper list of assets to have an accessible reference to work from going forward. In addition, a landlord is advised to videotape or photograph the major items of property owned by the deceased tenant. 

Determine Whether Probate Proceedings Will Occur

A landlord needs to ascertain whether probate proceedings will be held in regard to the deceased tenant. If these proceedings will occur, the landlord can take advantage of them in a number of ways. First, a landlord can seek compensation from the estate for any amount of money due and owing in the form of rent, costs associated with personal property storage, biohazard remediation, and so forth.

If probate proceedings commence, a landlord can contact the person the court designates as the executor or personal representative of the estate. This designated individual has the legal right and obligation to work with the landlord to remove the deceased tenant’s property from the rental unit or to sign that property over to the landlord.

The best source of information regarding whether probate proceedings will occur is a surviving family member. The coroner’s office may have some information in that regard. A landlord can also contact the clerk of the court in the county where the rental property is located (and where the tenant died) to see if a probate case has been filed. 

Formal Notification to Surviving Relative

The matter of dealing with the property in a rental unit occupied by a tenant who dies by suicide becomes complicated when a surviving family member like a child, sibling, or parent is known. A person related to a deceased tenant as a child, sibling, or parent may legally have an interest in the property in the rental unit. 

The situation becomes more complicated still in a situation like that described in the case study a moment ago. In that case, a relative is identified (in that instance, a daughter of the deceased tenant). Contact is made with the child who advises that she is not interested in or capable of taking possession of the property in the rental unit. 

In this scenario, a landlord should send a formal notice to the relative (or relatives) notifying that individual (or those individuals) of the deceased tenant’s property. The best course is to utilize the abandoned property notification provision and apply it in this situation. (The abandoned property provisions of California landlord and tenant law are discussed in greater detail in a moment.)

Advise the surviving relation that he or she has 15 days to claim the deceased tenant’s property or it will be disposed of in accordance with California law. California law extends this to 18 days if the notice is mailed. (The manner of permissible disposal of property in a situation like this is discussed shortly.)

In the case study discussed earlier, the deceased person’s child lived out of state. Send the notification by first class as well as certified mail. If you have an email address for this individual, send the notice digitally as well. You will want to repeat this for any close surviving relative that materializes and doesn’t take action to retrieve or otherwise deal with the property. 

If you’ve already been advised that the relative is unable or unwilling to address the matter of the deceased tenant’s property, include with this notification a written statement the person can sign disavowing any interest in the property. This statement disavowing an interest in the property is discussed in a moment. 

Written Statement From Surviving Relative Disavowing Interest in Tenant’s Property

The best practice when this scenario develops is to obtain a signed, notarized statement from the relative in question in which that person formally disavows or disclaims any interest in the deceased tenant’s property. Ideally, the document includes a statement indicating that the relative is the only known survivor of the deceased tenant. If that is not the case, the landlord should make a reasonable effort to identify and connect with any other close relative. A close relative for this purpose is a child, sibling, or parent. A landlord need not go on a mission to find any relation. 

Valuation of Deceased Tenant’s Property

A landlord needs to make a reasonable valuation of the property in the deceased tenant’s rental unit. In most cases involving a situation in which surviving kin have no discernable interest in retrieving the property, odds are strong that the overall value of those items will be moderate. As you will see in a moment, a reasonable valuation of the property is necessary in making an ultimate determination of how that property can be disposed of. 

California Tenant Abandoned Property Process

California has established a set of procedures a landlord is to use when a tenant is suspected to have abandoned property in a rental unit. When a tenant has died by suicide and at least one close family member has surfaced, following the procedures outlined in regard to abandoned property is a reasonable course to take. The process allows a close family member reasonable time to make arrangements for retrieving the property of a tenant who died by suicide. Moreover, the process provides a landlord a sense of certainty in regard to an ultimate timeframe for the disposition of a deceased tenant’s property. 

If the surviving family member has not a written statement disavowing an interest in the deceased tenant’s property, a landlord best protect his or her interests by following the guidelines for disposing of abandoned property as outlined in the California law. If the value of the property left behind by the tenant can reasonably be said to be worth less than $700, once the time period set forth in the notice has passed, the landlord can dispose of that property in any manner he or she deems appropriate.

If the property is valued over $700, and the landlord has not received a written disavowal of an interest in the property from the tenant’s next of kin, the landlord can sell the property. In order to undertake such a sale, a landlord needs to place a notice in a newspaper of general circulation in the country where the property is located. The notice needs to be published at least five days before the sale. 

If the next of kin decides he or she would like to take the property after the publication notice occurs, that individual can do so provided he or she pays the costs assessed by the landlord for storage as well as the fee for publishing the notice. At the expiration of the minimum five -day period from the publication of the notice, the landlord can sell the property. This can be accomplished through something as simple as a garage or yard sale. 

The landlord can use proceeds from the sale to pay for the accrued storage costs associated with the deceased tenant’s property. If there is money left over, the landlord needs to provide it to the country treasurer. The country treasurer will hold the money in trust for a period of one year. If no one makes a valid claim for that money during that time period, the money reverts back to the landlord. 

As was mentioned at the outset, this article is not intended as a substitute for legal advice. A California landlord is always best served by retaining the services of a reliable, experienced landlord and tenant law attorney to assist with legal issues. The State Bar of California maintains a searchable attorney directory at its website organized by areas of practice.