What Happens to an Apartment Lease Obligation After a Death?

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You’ve probably got a long checklist to complete when you lose a loved one. 

  • Decide where to hold the funeral. Check. 
  • Take care of legal and financial responsibilities. Check. 
  • Look for your loved one’s end-of-life planning checklist. Check.
  • Look for life insurance and bank account numbers and passwords. Check.

Here’s one more “check” to add to your list: You might need to research what happens to a mortgage after someone dies. But what should you do if your loved one was renting a house or apartment? 

We’ll guide you through handling a house or apartment lease after a loved one dies. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

Read Up On Your State Laws

Each state has its own laws about what happens with a lease after the tenant dies. Most state laws say that the deceased’s estate is responsible for paying the entire amount due on the contract. This means that if your loved one died three months into a 12-month lease, the estate should remit the additional nine months of rent payments to the landlord.

Most state laws are also quick to protect the rights of the landlord by saying that unpaid rent must also be remitted to the landlord as well as any amount to cover damage to the property.

Most rental agreements require that the renter submit a deposit when you sign the lease. The deposit amount can be used to pay for the unpaid rent or the damage incurred to the property. If the deposit amount is greater than what is owed, the landlord must refund the amount to the deceased’s estate.

Look at the wording of the lease to see if the security deposit can be used to pay the last month’s rent. Some contracts state that the security deposit can go “toward” the previous month’s rent if the rent had increased since signing the original rental agreement.

ยป MORE: Guide your loved one through a difficult loss one step at a time. Here's your complete checklist.

 

Notify the Landlord of the Death

In most cases, the next of kin or the executor of the estate must notify the landlord about the death of a tenant. If you are one of those responsible parties, inform the landlord as soon as possible, but also provide written notification as well.

Provide your name and contact information to the landlord in the written notification. You may consider sending the written notification through certified mail so there is a record that the landlord received the correspondence.

To find the contact information for the landlord, look for a lease agreement within the paperwork of the deceased. Ask another tenant for the contact information if no lease is located. For large apartment buildings, the contact information may be posted in the lobby or other public spaces within the building. 

Determine Who’s Responsible for Paying Rent or Finding a New Tenant

So who’s responsible for finding another tenant after a renter dies? The responsible party varies from state to state. For example, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to find a new tenant as soon as possible in Texas. Once a new tenant is found, the estate must be released of its obligation to pay the rent. 

What if your loved one lived in a highly-desirable location that was rent-controlled? Would you be able to take over your loved one’s lease? The rules vary among cities but most of the time, next of kin are not allowed to take over the lease. This rule may be overlooked if the survivor lived at the location. 

Ask That the Estate be Released from Financial Obligation

DIdn’t your mama always say, “it doesn’t hurt to ask”? If your loved one lived in a state that requires renters to fulfill their obligations of a lease no matter what, you can still ask for grace on behalf of the estate. 

Schedule a face-to-face meeting or call with the property manager. Bring your documentation that proves that you can speak on behalf of the estate. Politely ask if there is some sort of compromise that can be agreed upon to release the estate from the lease.

The property manager may gladly release the estate from the obligation, perhaps out of kindness. It’s difficult to say “no” to a family member who is grieving.

Perhaps the property manager knows that the apartment can be rented for a larger amount and that releasing the estate from the lease will make financial sense to the company. 

Share your final wishes, just in case.

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Be Prepared to Show Documentation that You are the Next of Kin

The landlord may be leery of letting just anyone clear out the apartment after your loved one’s death. In fact, the landlord may have changed the locks on the apartment or house to keep unauthorized people from taking the deceased’s belongings. 

Be prepared to show legal documentation that you are the executor of the estate. You may also need to show the landlord a photo ID to prove that you are the person who has the right to remove the property. 

Clean Out the Apartment or House

In most cases, a landlord is required to give the family or executors time to clean out the apartment of a loved one who dies. Of course, if the estate is still paying rent, the property of the deceased can stay until the rental agreement has expired. 

The landlord may request that your loved one’s property be removed by a specific deadline if the estate has been released from the lease. If the landlord is not required to release the estate from the lease agreement, it would be kind of the survivors to clean out the property as soon as possible. A general guideline of between two weeks and 30 days would be an acceptable time frame.

Cleaning out the rental property may be a monumental process, especially if your loved one lived in the home for years. You might consider taking these steps:

  • First, start with the paperwork. Look for life insurance documents, debts that the estate may be responsible for, and any additional assets. 
  • Next, decide which items to sell at an estate sale, which to donate to a local charity, and which to recycle or throw away. 
  • Finally, set aside photographs and family mementos and distribute those among the survivors. 

Find Out What Happens to Unclaimed Possessions

Perhaps you’re not able to or interested in cleaning out your loved one’s apartment. If this is the case, the landlord may check with an attorney to understand the proper way to dispose of the deceased’s possessions. This disposal may be similar to the process that occurs when a property is abandoned. 

In this case, the landlord may be required to store the belongings of your loved one for a specific number of days. After that time passes, the possessions may be sold at auction. Most of the time, the landlord may be able to keep the amount raised from the sale. 

Sign the Release of the Rights of Possession Form 

As the next of kin or executor of the estate, you may be required to sign the Release of the Rights of Possession form. This form states that you have removed all personal effects from the rental property and that the property has been vacated. 

Even though the estate may be legally required to pay the balance of the lease, you may interact with a landlord who is a bit more forgiving. He or she may feel compassion and allow you more time to clean out your loved one’s personal effects. He or she may also release the estate from any further financial obligation. 

This guide is meant to be a general discussion of what happens to a lease after a renter dies. Please make sure you read your state’s laws regarding this topic. Speak with an attorney so you completely understand your rights and responsibilities, since the laws vary from state to state.

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If you're looking for more guides on financial obligations after death, check out our articles on student loan debt after death, credit cards after death, and who's responsibe for paying for funerals.


Sources

  1.  “Death of a tenant—Landlord duties—Disposition of property procedures—Liability.” app.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=59.18.595
  2. “Landlord and Tenant.” www.dre.ca.gov/files/pdf/refbook/ref09.pdf
  3. “Succession Rights.” www1.nyc.gov/site/rentguidelinesboard/resources/succession-rights.page.

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