landlord/tenant Q&A

Lurline R. Johnson (R), ABR, CRB, CRS, GRI, RMP
Property Manager Property Profiles, Inc.
Past President, Oahu Chapter National Association of Residential Property Managers

Q.

A man we were renting to died in our apartment in a highrise building. We only found out because the neighbors complained of the smell. We called the police and they came and helped with the removal of the body. We have no reason to think the death wasn’t natural causes. My question is now what? I don’t know who to call or what to do. One of the neighbors wants me to pay for their hotel expense because they said their unit smelled so bad that they couldn’t stay there. Do I have to do that?

A.

You did the right thing by calling the police and having them deal with the body. Even though you have no reason to suspect it was anything other than natural causes, the police have procedures that they need to go through. Secure the unit, make sure all doors and windows are locked, and stay out of the unit until the investigation is complete. So what do you do next? Since there was a distinct odor, there is probably bio-hazard remediation that needs to be done. There are many companies locally that take care of that type of situation. Always confirm that professional clean-up services are certified or licensed in accordance with state regulations for death-related cleanup projects. Death clean-up costs may be covered by homeowner’s insurance, so consult your insurance company. As far as the neigh-bor who wants to be housed somewhere else while the clean-up is being done – I don’t see how you would be obligated to honor such a request.

In the meantime, try to contact the next of kin. Your residential lease applications should have a space where tenants can fill in information for emergency contacts – which may include relatives and friends. Look up the person or persons your tenant listed and contact them as quickly as possible.

When your tenant’s next of kin comes to collect his belongings, make sure you don’t hand them over to just anyone. It is your duty as the landlord to verify the relationship -ask for identification and you might even want to verify the tenant’s will to identify his or her executor. You might also want to have a complete written inventory and pictures of the items that are being released to the executor – just for your own records and peace of mind.

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. After 30 days, the landlord can do whatever he or she wants with the person’s belongings. If the landlord sells the items, he 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 this money.

Regarding the rent, the heirs cannot be held liable for any unpaid rent or damages arising from the death of a tenant. The estate of the deceased, however, can be held liable for unpaid rent for the balance of the lease or until the unit is re-rented, and for damages and cleaning costs. The owner must still make good-faith efforts to re-rent the apartment as soon as possible, and he cannot charge the estate any rent after the apartment is re-rented.

Answers to questions in Landlord Tenant Q&A are provided by members of the Oahu Chapter of the National Association of Residential Property Managers (NARPM), an organization that supports the professional and ethical practices of rental home management through networking, education, and certification. The Oahu Chapter, founded in 2004, has become the largest in the nation with 175 registered members.

Disclaimer: The answers provided in this column by Realtors address individual cases and should not be construed as interpretations of the law. For specific information on Hawaii State Law, go to http://hawaii.gov/dcca/areas/ocp/landlord_tenant or contact an attorney.

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