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What Do You Do When a Tenant Dies Mid-lease?

Life and Death Happen in Houses

No matter how you slice it, some things are always going to be a bit uncomfortable to discuss, no matter how you approach it. Sometimes the best approach is to hit the topic head-on. The death of a tenant is one such topic.

If you think about it, “Life happens in houses.” With a little thought, you realize that professional property managers — the people who deal with houses on a mass scale every day — come to see a lot of life over time. We have to deal with every conceivable situation know to the human condition which, unfortunately, though inevitably, means dealing with death and its aftermath.

If you’re a landlord long enough, you’ll eventually have to deal with a tenant’s passing. Here are some things for you to consider.

Two Fundamental Issues to Consider When a Tenant Dies in Your Rental

  1. Was there a single tenant, or multiple tenants occupying the property?
  2. If a single tenant, what are your rights and responsibilities with respect to re-taking possession of the property?

Let’s look at these issues individually.

Multiple Tenants vs. Single Tenant

In a multiple tenant situation, where all tenants are named on the lease, there may not be any issues moving forward since the lease remains in force for the surviving tenant(s). However, possible complications to consider are:

  • Can the surviving tenant(s) continue to afford the rent payments on their own?
  • Were the circumstances of the death such that the surviving tenant(s) are unwilling to remain in the property?

Some landlords may want to take a hard-line by attempting to enforce a lease on the surviving tenants regardless of their new circumstance. Technically, the landlord may be entitled to enforce the lease on the surviving tenant(s), but that isn’t necessarily the prudent and right thing to do.

If the remaining tenant is genuinely unable to continue to pay the rent, does it make sense to try to enforce the lease on them? Suppose the death has traumatized the surviving tenant to the point where they cannot psychologically bear to remain in the property — are you going to try to force them to stay?

Sometimes, the technically correct thing to do isn’t the right thing to do. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to release the remaining tenant from the lease and re-rent the property — not always, but sometimes. This is a decision that you may be forced to make, so you should prepare yourself for the realities and think through the scenario ahead of time.

In a single tenant situation, you are free of any decisions regarding surviving tenants, but that doesn’t mean that your taking possession of the rental will be a straightforward, cut-and-dry affair. Issues to consider are:

  • Were there contents left in the unit?
  • Who has a right to those contents and what documentation will you need to see to release the contents?
  • Does a relative automatically have a right to enter the unit and what are your responsibilities as a landlord?
  • If nobody steps forward to claim the contents, what are your obligations with respect to their disposal?

If nobody steps forward to (legally) claim the contents of the unit, Florida Statutes 83.59(d) is quite clear on how the landlord must proceed. When a tenant dies you may retake possession of the dwelling if the following conditions are met:

  1. The last remaining tenant has died;
  2. The rent is unpaid for the current rental period;
  3. 60 days have passed following the date of death, AND;
  4. No letter regarding probate or a personal representative has been received.

ALL of the above conditions must be met. The biggest hurdle you have to overcome is waiting the 60 days before taking possession of the unit in the case of unclaimed contents.

As you can see, the death of a tenant can lead to complications for landlords. It’s best to familiarize yourself with your obligations in such a scenario BEFORE it occurs and ALWAYS immediately speak with your legal counsel if you find yourself with a deceased tenant situation on your hands.

Real Property Management of Sarasota & Manatee is the independently owned local office of North America’s largest, Inc.500, residential property management company, Real Property Management, Inc. “RPM SaraMana” works on behalf of rental property owners in the following Sarasota and Manatee County Florida communities: Ellenton, Parrish, Palmetto, Lakewood Ranch, Bradenton, Sarasota, Siesta Key, Osprey, Nokomis, Venice, North Port, Englewood, and Punta Gorda.

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