This is a revival of a post from a few years ago. I’ve had a couple of emails recently from property managers across the U.S. who are dealing with this issue right now, and they’re looking for answers. So, what does the property manager need to know (and do) when a tenant of ours dies in one of our rental units?
Yes, I know. This is a rather depressing topic. Not something we ordinarily want to discuss. Yet, if you’re in this business long enough, eventually, someone’s going to die in one of your rental units. It happens. In my 30+ years as a property manager, I’ve had three deaths. The first was a drug overdose; the second a “peaceful” death, and the third was suicide.
No matter the circumstances, there isn’t anything much more disturbing than to find a dead body in an apartment or rental house you manage. The event can haunt you for months. At the moment you discover the death, it’s easy to make critical mistakes – confusion takes hold, and we don’t always think clearly about what we should be doing.
Following are a few guidelines to help you deal appropriately with a death in one of your rental units:
“The Best Advice I can give you is do not go into the house, don’t use any of the utilities i.e. phone etc. This will make it easy for the Police when you say I only went to here saw and left and called the police. The less time spent in the scene the better for preserving evidence. Sometimes it may not be a death of Natural causes , but a Homicide, so Evidence preservation is paramount.”
- First things first. Call the police. Whether the death was “natural” or in some way related to a crime, it is a police matter. Do not touch anything in the rental unit, and certainly do NOT move the body. Wait outside for the police to arrive. You will need to make a statement. The police will examine the property, call the coroner, and release possession of the property back to you, once the body is removed.
- Contact the deceased’s next of kin. Your tenant’s rental application will likely have contact information for relatives. There will be many questions for which you do not have answers. Refer the family to the police for details. Do not speculate on the cause of death, or any circumstances surrounding the death.
- Contact the property owner. This is likely to be a very difficult conversation. The rental property owner is going to rely completely on your expertise as a property manager, and your guidance here. It is your job to orchestrate an orderly transition, and assure your owner of your competency in handling the matter.
- Contact the owner’s insurance agent. In most cases, the expenses connected with a death in a rental property can be an insurance claim on the owner’s policy. The insurance adjuster will likely guide the process of restoring the unit to rentable condition. Remember that, regardless of the cause of death, you are dealing with potentially hazardous conditions. Only use licensed professionals for cleanup work. This is not the job of a handyman.
- You will likely need to talk to the neighboring residents. There will be many questions. Once again, it is not your job to speculate as to the cause of death, or circumstances surrounding it. Assure other tenants that you will handle the situation professionally. They may simply need an opportunity to vent their fears and frustrations. Yes, sometimes we’re in the business of counseling our owners and tenants.
- If the death was a violent one, you may have to deal with the press. The rules here are the same with anyone you talk to. Do not speculate, and do not share private or personal information about the tenant, or your client. If you are an on-site manager, refer press inquiries to the property manager.
- Secure the unit. Make sure all doors and windows are locked at all times. Remember, you are responsible for the safekeeping of the tenant’s personal property until it is legally claimed by family members. In most cases, you will need a court order to release the personal property. Check with your attorney. When releasing property to the family, be sure you know who you’re releasing the property to. Make sure the family member is authorized to claim the property, check identification, and get a release signed by the family member who claims the deceased’s property.
Do I have to tell a new tenant about the death?
In many states, property managers are not required to disclose a death in a rental unit to a prospective tenant, unless the death was related to a defect in the unit that has not been corrected. For example, if a tenant died from a fall because the stair rail gave way, and we haven’t properly repaired the rail, it’s a material fact – it must be disclosed. Otherwise, there is no obligation to disclose the death. However, some states do require disclosure of this fact. Check with legal counsel, and be sure you know the requirements of your own state.
Just because you might not be obligated to disclose the death doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be in your (and your owner/client’s) best interest to disclose it. Consider this situation – a situation I experienced with my very first tenant death.
The apartment was located in a multi-unit property. Most of the neighboring tenants were long-term residents, and were friendly with one another. Naturally, they all knew about the death. Imagine not telling a prospective resident about that death, and then having him learn about it via his neighbors, after moving in. This sets the stage for a relationship between you and your new tenant based on lack of information and mistrust. Not good for you, your owner, or the new tenant.
Rather than keeping the death a “secret,” I sought the owner’s permission to disclose the death to prospective tenants, before they committed to rent the unit. I easily found a new tenant for the unit who didn’t care that someone had died there before. The unit had new carpet, paint, and window coverings, it was located in the area she wanted to live, and she was very happy to have found it. The honesty conveyed by my disclosing the death set the stage for a positive landlord/tenant relationship. She ended up living in that unit happily for several years, until she bought her own home.
There’s no doubt, discovering a death in one of your rental units is tragic, no matter the circumstances. Handling the matter with a calm and professional attitude will serve you well.
Have you experienced a death in one of your rental properties? Do you have tips or advice to share with the rest of the property management community? Please do so, by posting a comment on this story.