June 2014 Landlord Advocate
Dead tenants: How to deal with the fact that they can’t take everything with them.
“When death overtakes us; all that we have is left to others; all that we are we take with us.” Unknown.
Philosophers have long debated the value of life over death and the relative value of our lives compared to our possessions and personal property. However, the law applying to landlords and property owners tolerates no debate – you must deal with the issues of possession of the apartment and disposition of the dead tenant’s possessions and personal effects via either a summary process case or the “Death of tenant” statute at Connecticut General Statutes § 47a-11d.
These processes are not well designed and have created substantial frustration for landlords. Since we first published this article, our state legislature has considered proposed bills in 2013 and 2014 to amend the dead tenant statute to make it more functional and useful to landlords, but nothing has come of that effort. Accordingly, we are revisiting the subject to remind landlords of the pitfalls associated with a dead tenant, and the subjects for review and consideration to enhance the landlord’s ability to deal with the situation.
The landlord’s approach – and whether it runs smoothly and efficiently, or haphazardly and costly – will largely depend on whether the landlord has prepared for the possibility of the tenant dying in the application, lease, and property management operational policies and procedures. Does the prospective tenant application contain a “next-of-kin” section that captures the pertinent information plus the central players if a will is involved (for example, the names and contact information for the tenant’s executor and attorney)? How does the lease address a tenant’s death? What are the operational policies and procedures for dealing with someone seeking access to the unit to remove the deceased’s possessions and personal property? How are pending rent, damage, and storage amounts due pursued?
Unfortunately, it is not as simple as contacting the next-of-kin and giving them the key. One client tried this and learned the hard way that handing over a key is an invitation for the “executor” to move-in. That client called us months later to complain that the deceased possessions were still in the property and the “executor” had not paid any of the rental arrearage or rent since she moved-in, and had no plans to remove herself of the dead tenant’s possessions from the premises. It was a long, complicated, and expensive experience to resolve these issues, which involved both the housing court and probate court.
What happens if the next-of-kin was a family member who placed personal interest over the instructions or wishes of the dead tenant and the rest of his/her family? If the other family members take the issue to the police department or court, the landlord could face arrest or a civil entry & detainer lawsuit after giving the next-of-kin access to the unit without appropriate legal authority. A criminal case is a nightmare. A civil case comes close, with the legally authorized family members able to claim double damages against the landlord – the value of the possessions taken times two. Often, the only testimony regarding the dead tenant’s possessions comes from the plaintiff family members, who may claim that the deceased tenant had a flat-screen TV, laptop, desktop computer, surround-sound audio components, jewelry, cash, and priceless family heirlooms in the apartment, which are no longer there and no one can find them or the next-of-kin.
There is good news – the deceased tenant’s estate must pay the landlord for any amount of unpaid rent, damages, and storage costs. Our landlord clients have found great success in pursuing such claims against the dead tenant’s estate, particularly where the dead tenant had liquid assets like a checking or savings account and investments. However, the statutes governing the administration of an estate have specific requirements and timeframe(s) for how and when to file a claim against the estate.
Landlords should evaluate their preparation and planning for a dead tenant by contacting their landlord attorney for assistance in evaluating the landlord’s current application, lease, and operational policies and procedures and determining the necessary changes to meet the landlord’s business goals and objectives.
As landlord attorneys, we often find clients in difficult situations. Frankly, that’s usually why they reach out to us in the first place. And, not surprisingly, when they reach out to us with the difficult situation, we often find these clients both personally and emotionally involved and immersed in the conflict at hand. In many instances, the situation started simply enough and the client’s efforts to address it were both reasonable and compassionate. However as time progressed, the simple problem began to grow into something much more. And, now, at the time we are consulted, the client is in a battle of wills with their tenant. “They promised to [fill in the blank] and they haven’t done so. They’ve broken their promise and now I want them out.” Translation: “I’ve been played and now it’s my turn.” This is, without doubt, a difficult pill to swallow. And, the “principle” often becomes the driving motivation for the landlord’s conduct. Word of warning – this is where the biggest challenges often arise.
When it’s “the principle” of the matter that you are focused on, you must prepare yourself to spend lots of time and effort to see your “principle” vindicated. Now, don’t get me wrong. We all have principles upon which we live and operate, even attorneys, so I am told. And, it is common for us to support and encourage clients to advocate their principles in an effort to achieve a greater good and impact in their communities and the industry as a whole in CT. Such a pursuit is often valuable and the return on the investment of time, energy, and money into the particular issue is often quite impressive. It is always advisable to think twice before deciding to elect this approach. Choosing to handle a difficult situation on a “principle” basis may require time and effort that cannot be overestimated and, in many cases, the outcome can often be unpredictable. Consider that the decision maker in front of whom you will argue your position may not share similar principles. This is part of the evaluation you should undertake when faced with this type of litigation decision. However, on the positive side, once the commitment is made, you may find that the clarity and decisions that drive you toward your goal are much more likely to reap positive effects. It is often much easier to determine what path you will take when it is so brightly illuminated by the underlying principle you are advocating.
Being driven by a personal or emotional “principle” is a choice you must make. Be sure you understand that achieving the outcome you desire may be the right one in your mind; but it may take some time and effort to get there. In the right circumstances, that principled pursuit will support and protect your ultimate business interests.
The reading of this newsletter does not form an attorney-client relationship. The contents of this newsletter are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Nothing in this newsletter is intended to imply or predict the outcome of any legal matter that you may be considering or be involved in. The Landlord Law Firm makes no warranties of any kind regarding the information contained in this newsletter.