What to do with deceased tenant’s possessions

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Q: Our tenant passed away and left us with a house full of personal belongings. What are our legal obligations regarding all of this property? –Mary R.

A: The tenant’s personal belongings should be given only to someone with legal authority. Just who that person is depends on the size of your tenant’s estate and whether he left a will or other estate planning document. Here are the options:

  • The executor. People who write a will usually name an executor (sometimes called the personal representative). The executor gets the property. If the tenant left enough valuable property, the executor will have a probate court order showing his authority (sometimes called "letters testamentary"). If someone appears and says he or she is the executor, ask for the original court order. Look for a court stamp on the first page a signature from the judge.
  • The inheritors. If the tenant didn’t leave a will, or if the value of the property is below a specified threshold, there won’t be a probate proceeding or a court-authorized executor. In this case, you may release property to the persons entitled (under the terms of a will or state law) to inherit it. Usually, the inheritors must give you a signed, sworn statement (affidavit or declaration signed under penalty of perjury) stating that they are entitled to the property; the particulars depend on state law.
  • The administrator. If the tenant died without a will but left more than a certain amount of property (each state has its own rules), the probate court will appoint an administrator to wind up the affairs. Ask the administrator to show you the court order.
  • The successor trustee. A probate-avoiding living trust transfers someone’s personal property to a trust, thereby avoiding the need for probate when the owner dies. If your tenant set up a trust, the person you’ll encounter is called the successor trustee. Ask to see the original trust document, signed and notarized.

If someone shows up and claims to have the right to the tenant’s belongings, how can you make sure that this person is, in fact, entitled to the items? Ask for a current picture ID and a legal document (one of those listed above) conferring authority.

Q: My landlord is charging me the cost of replacing the stove in my apartment after it accidentally caught on fire last week. Isn’t that something that the owner should replace at his own expense, because he owns the appliance and already has insurance that covers for accidents like the one that happened? –Bassam F.

A: The key to answering your question lies in what you mean by "accidentally caught fire." Who caused the accident? Either you (or another resident or guest) accidentally caused the fire, or the stove malfunctioned due to no act of yours.

Let’s look at the first possibility: While cooking, you did something that accidentally caused a fire. When people accidentally cause damage to other people’s belongings, they are financially responsible, regardless of whether the other party has insurance to cover the loss.

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The landlord’s property policy covers damage to the structure due to fire, and also damage to specified contents. If the landlord owns the stove, chances are it’s covered. But think for a minute about what will happen if the landlord makes a claim on his policy: The insurance company will cover, but there’s a deductible, which the landlord will have to pay. Even if he demands that you reimburse him, which he’d be within his rights to do, he will have made a claim, which is something that people don’t like to do unless they have to. It’s far better to simply demand that you pay upfront for the consequences of your carelessness.

On the other hand, if the fire is the result of no act of yours, but simply the consequence of a faulty or worn-out piece of equipment, making you pay is not right. Landlords pay for upkeep that isn’t the fault of tenants, not tenants.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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