Question: For several years, I’ve rented a home to an elderly woman in an area that is popular with active senior citizens. An ideal tenant, she was always early or on time with her rent payment. But three months ago, her payments didn’t arrive on the due date. When I contacted her, she said she had forgotten to mail the check. Another month went by and she forgot again. This month, I called her and she was totally disoriented, and said she has been sick and would soon get the check in the mail. I contacted her son, whose name was listed on the rental application and who lives out of town. He said his mother had become forgetful and that he was concerned for her health and safety. He said he has tried to bring caregivers into the home, and she has refused to answer the door. Last week, she was stopped by a local law enforcement officer and had been driving aimlessly around. He said he’s trying to get power of attorney to act on behalf of his mother.
In the interim, I’m concerned that my tenant could not only be in need of more direct attention, but that she may also damage the house. She smokes and I fear a forgotten cigarette could start a fire. It’s a sad situation. She’s on a yearly lease. Do I have any standing to intervene?
Steven Kellman, an attorney for tenants, replies:
It is a difficult situation when a person becomes forgetful, and your concern is commendable. Your tenant’s condition could be a temporary one or perhaps one that will only get worse with time. Behavior like you describe can be caused by certain forms of dementia, which could result from advanced age or other medical processes, or perhaps it is the result of a progressively degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s. In any event, it is difficult because being “forgetful” is a question of perception and there are degrees of forgetfulness. Even the most alert and competent adults can experience moments of “absent-mindedness,” which could mirror some of your tenant’s symptoms.
The problem is that until she is declared legally incompetent, she is free to act as she deems fit and proper for her. Therefore, she is entitled to be free from interference until it becomes clear that she is a danger to herself or others around her. If her son tried to help with no success, then you will probably have a more difficult time gaining her voluntary cooperation with any assistance.
You can take the hard-line attitude and begin eviction proceedings on the nonpayment of rent or you can try to help with another approach. You can contact your local county social service agency, including the Adult Protective Services, to have her situation evaluated. They can intervene and make an assessment of her condition, competency and need for help. If they determine she is well and competent enough to handle her own affairs but then insists on handling them poorly, you may be forced to take legal action to protect your property. If such action is commenced, her condition and need for assistance may then become more evident and hopefully will prompt action on her behalf.
Question: I am a property manager. A tenant signed a lease earlier this month that is set to begin on the first of next month. The tenant now indicates that he wishes to cancel the lease for vague reasons; he mentioned that his attorney told him he could have trouble in his child-custody proceedings. Can he just back out of the lease?
James McKinley, an attorney for landlords, replies:
Unless your tenant is in the military and is being deployed, there is no valid reason for him to back out of the lease. Assuming that both parties signed the lease and that you gave the tenant a copy of the executed lease, you have formed a valid contract with your tenant. To answer your question simply: No, the tenant cannot just back out of the lease.
This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies” and co-author of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies,” and San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and James McKinley, principal in a law firm representing landlords.
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