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Real estate Q&A: What should we do about lease after long-time tenant's death?

Gary M. Singer, South Florida Sun Sentinel on

Published in Home and Consumer News

Q: We have rented an apartment to the same gentleman for the last 10 years. We sign a new lease each year, and he has been a great tenant. Sadly, he recently passed away unexpectedly. What are we supposed to do with his belongings and the lease? — Sandy

A: When someone passes away, their legal existence continues in their “estate.” An estate is a legal construct where a representative called a “personal representative” or “executor” is appointed to marshal the deceased’s assets, pay any creditors, and distribute the remainder to the next of kin and beneficiaries designated in the will.

This legal process is known as “probate” and requires hiring an attorney to file the paperwork with the court. Some people, whether because of proper estate planning or circumstances, pass away with no assets that need to be probated. A trust agreement may designate who gets their belongings, or there may be a surviving spouse or children who get the remaining items of sentimental value.

This can be a difficult situation to deal with as a landlord. Your first step is to review the lease. Many leases bind your tenant’s estate or heirs. Their estate will be responsible for paying any remaining rent and will receive the return of the security deposit when the lease ends.

Secure the apartment and try to safeguard the belongings inside. Make sure anyone who wants to take the belongings is the appropriate person.


If probate has been opened, ask to see the paperwork showing who is appointed to administer the estate. If not, make sure you are dealing with the next of kin.

When dealing with the people left behind, be aware of what they are going through and show patience and compassion. Work with the heirs to terminate the lease and collect any remaining rent due. If probate was opened, make a claim with the court for any money still owed to you.

If no one comes forward from his family, you should try to get in touch with any relatives you know about. If you cannot find someone to deal with, be cautious with their belongings.

You must comply with the procedures set out in the abandoned property law in your area. If you just throw everything away and an heir shows up, you may be liable if you ignore the rules.

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