Q: I own a townhouse, which I was renting to one tenant who died at the beginning of April. His lease ran from Aug. 1, 2016, to July 31, 2017. The lease contains a nonsmoking clause, but my tenant smoked, so there’s considerable damage to the unit. The cost to clean the place and the carpets, along with repainting the cabinets, will far exceed his damage deposit of $1,395. There is no known will or safe-deposit box. There is a car in the garage and other items including a computer, TV, bed, tools and a bicycle. Currently, my wife and I are the only ones with access to the tenant’s townhouse and vehicle. I did let his ex-wife and brother into the townhouse to pick out clothes for the funeral.
This situation has left me with several questions. First, who can terminate my tenant’s lease, and what type of notice do they or I need to give? Since April rent was not paid, who is responsible for it? And who will pay for the smoke damage? Can I hold onto my tenant’s property until I get paid for the rent owed and for damages to the unit? Lastly, If I have to hold on to my tenant’s personal property, do I have to hire licensed, bonded movers and licensed, bonded storage?
A: In Minnesota, a lease may be terminated if all the tenants on the lease die. Since the only tenant on your lease is the deceased tenant, then you, as his landlord, can terminate the lease. You or your tenant’s estate is legally allowed to give a two-month notice to terminate the lease, regardless of the length of the lease. In your case, the tenant died with four months left on his lease. Since there needs to be two full months’ notice, the notice to terminate starts in May and goes through the end of June. Therefore, your tenant’s estate owes three months of rent. You cannot charge the estate for the remaining fourth month of rent. You should write a letter to the estate giving a two-month notice to terminate the lease. Send it to the tenant’s last-known address, which is your rental property, with copies to anyone else for whom you have an address.
Your claim as the landlord is against your tenant’s estate only. If your tenant died without assets, your chances of collecting rent are slim. The estate is the only party that owes this debt; you cannot collect from your tenant’s family members. If the estate still owes you rent, you can keep the security deposit to cover unpaid rent or utility bills. Landlords also can withhold a deceased tenant’s security deposit to cover damages to the unit, excluding ordinary wear and tear. The cost of cleaning carpets and painting walls because of smoke damage could be charged to the estate. However, repainting cupboards should not be charged to the estate unless the smoke ruined the cupboards. It will help if you have photos from the start of your tenant’s lease to compare with photos taken at the end of the lease.
The tenant’s belongings must be left in the townhouse until the lease terminates. Anyone with a legal right to access the property, such as the personal representative of the estate, should be allowed in. Keep a list of any property removed and by whom. After the lease ends, any remaining property should be treated as abandoned property. If the personal representative or relatives don’t remove it by the end of the lease, then the statute covering abandoned property requires you to hold the items for 28 days. After 28 days, you may sell the property, and dispose of unsold items by giving 14-day notice. You may not withhold the property for payment of rent or damages. You can give it to someone who is managing the estate, and negotiate with them to recover rent or damage not covered by the deposit. You have to store your deceased tenant’s property, but you do not have to hire licensed, bonded movers or pay for licensed, bonded storage.
Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.