LURLINE R. JOHNSON (R), ABR, CRB, CRS, GRI, RMP
Property Profiles, Inc.
Past President, Oahu Chapter
National Association of Residential Property Managers
Q. I have a single older man living in my rental who takes exceptionally good care of it and brings in help with the cleaning both inside and out. He has become ill lately and I heard from one of his friends that his illness is terminal. I am wondering what I need to think about if something should happen to him, he doesn’t have any family to my knowledge.
A. The reality of the situation would be that if the tenant does pass away (whether in the unit or not) during the course of his lease, you may unfortunately inherit the responsibility of handing his belongings if he has no next-of-kin, friends, or designated executor. I would have a serious conversation with him to establish his plans in the event of his death and to consult with an estate planning attorney, financial planner, senior counselor, or any other professional that can help him prepare for the inevitable future. If he doesn’t, or if all attempts fail to get him to do anything, you could possibly get something in writing and signed by him indicating how he would want his belongings to be handled.
The worst case scenario would be if the tenant actually dies in the rental property with no direction, no one to handle the estate, and no one but you to deal with this problem. This is not only emotionally trying but can be financially prohibitive. Regardless of the circumstances, if a tenant dies while living in a home you own, you must do everything by the book.
Let’s go through the process of what to do if a tenant passes away in your rental property. First, you should call the police. Even if there is no indication of foul play, you shouldn’t touch anything in the home and you definitely should not move the body. Wait outside the dwelling until the police arrive – they will want to take your statement.
Second, secure the unit. After the investigation is complete, make sure all doors and window are locked. Now you can make calls to whomever the tenant has indicated on their residential lease application as next of kin or emergency contact. If you know there are none, you may want to proceed as if the property were “abandoned,” ref. (Haw. Rev. Stat 521-56(a)) – which entails making the determination of what property has value, make reasonable efforts to notify a potential next-of-kin, advertise the sale of goods and then 15 days after the notice is given, the landlord can sell or donate the items. If you end up selling the items, you can keep enough money from the sale to cover any unpaid rent and expenses – including cleaning and repairs. If there is any money left over, a family member or the legal representative can claim the money for the estate. They must make this claim within 6 months after the tenant’s death and the landlord will need to return the money. If there is no heir, the money may end up with State of Hawaii.
If there are next of kin, make sure you don’t hand things over to just anyone. It would be prudent as the landlord to verify the relationship. Ask for identification at the very least, you might also want to verify the tenant’s will, if there is one, to identify his or her executor.
Work with the next-of-kin or “legal representative” to deal with the tenant’s items. The legal representative is usually the person who is named in the will or by a court to look after the property (estate) of the person who died.
Regarding the rent, the heirs cannot be held liable for any unpaid rent or damages arising from the death of a tenant. The lease actually ends with the death of the tenant. The estate of the deceased, however, can be held liable for unpaid rent, damages and cleaning costs.