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Landlord / Tenant Q&A: LAURENE H. YOUNG, (B) MPM, RMP, REALTOR

LAURENE H. YOUNG, (B) MPM, RMP, REALTOR
Young Hawaii Homes, Inc.
2011 President, Oahu Chapter
National Association of Residential Property Managers

Q. A couple of weeks ago, one of my tenants of my apartment building called me to inform me that she thinks her neighbor is dead. There is a strong stench and flies outside his window. I get there and call the police; while in route I call my handyman to come who is just as much a coward as I am. We have no keys and HPD tries picking the locks. The handyman removes two jalousies and an officer reaches in to unlock the door from the inside. They estimate that my tenant has been dead for at least two weeks. We haven’t been able to contact any relatives, nor has the Medical Examiner. What do we do now? We can put his things in a storage room in the building.

A. This sounds like a horrible situation for everyone to have to go through. I would have been as much of a coward as you, but it was probably a good idea to just call the police and not to go inside. You wouldn’t have known what happened, so it is up to police to do an investigation and determine if there was any foul play involved. You wouldn’t want to disturb any evidence.

After the police have completed their immediate investigation and the EMT’s have determined that the tenant is deceased, the Medical Examiner is called to remove the body. Make sure to secure the unit completely and do not touch anything until the next of kin has time to come in and take whatever items they want. The Medical Examiner will ask you for all the tenant’s contact information and they will try to contact them. Since they have been unable to contact anyone, keep looking through your files to see if there are any other contacts you may have and keep in close contact with the ME’s office. They may tell you that they were able to reach someone but may not give you the information on who that contact was. It will be up to that person to contact you. You may want to consult your attorney if you do not hear from anyone within a reasonable amount of time. At some point in time, you will have to begin to remove items and clean the rest of the unit.

For health reasons, you will have to call a professional cleaner to clean the biohazard wastes as soon as possible. A regular cleaner or handyman doesn’t usually do that type of work. Even a natural death, especially after 2 weeks, will leave bodily fluids that need to be professionally cleaned, sanitized and deodorized.

Oftentimes the areas around the body (flooring or baseboards/walls) will have to be repaired or replaced. Check with your insurance company to see if you are covered for this.

Section 521-56 of the Landlord-Tenant Code references abandoned property, and this applies in this situation also. Because you are unable to immediately locate the next-of-kin, you would have to determine if there was anything of value and store those items. You would then advertise the sale in a daily paper of general circulation within the area where the unit is located for at least three (3) consecutive days. If you do not get any response within fifteen (15) days from the date of the notice, you may either donate the items or sell them. Any proceeds from the sale can be used to offset the costs of storage of the items, the costs of advertising and the sale, and to pay any accrued rent or damages/cleaning of the unit. If there is any money left over, it is to be held in trust for the tenant’s estate.

You may have costs beyond the security deposit held, for clean-up and repairs, depending on the condition of the rest of the unit. The tenant’s estate can be held liable for those costs, but first you would have to determine who is the executor of the estate and if there is any money left. If someone does show up claiming to be a relative of the deceased, make sure they are actually named in the will or appointed by the court to deal with the estate and remove the belongings.

For Hawaii rentals, you have to send a letter within 14 calendar days of the termination of the lease regarding the disposition of the security deposit. Document any efforts made to contact the next of kin, including names, address, phone numbers, email address, etc. along with the dates and times of all your attempts, including the information given to the Medical Examiner. I don’t know if a judge would penalize you for not mailing something, but to be safe, mail a certified letter to the “Executor of the Tenant” to the tenant’s address within the 14 days. That letter would document that you are holding the security deposit to cover cleaning and/or other expenses (send estimates). You can send a final bill when everything is completed.

Everyone asks if they should disclose a death in the unit, even if it was a natural death. I always advise people to disclose the fact when a tenant looks at the unit so that they don’t hear about it from the neighbor. Most people are okay with it, but some are not. You wouldn’t want them to move in and hysterically ask to leave the day after the neighbor tells them.

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