Death is a part of life, albeit one that many people may prefer not to think about. However, you must be prepared for the possibility of a renter passing away on your property at some point in your tenure as a landlord. The more rental units you have, the greater the likelihood is that over the years one of your tenants may die in your rental property. The best time to prepare for an in-rental death is before it happens.
Content warning: This article discusses the logistics of a tenant dying in your rental unit and will cover suicide, homicide and other circumstances. It does not pertain to a tenant who dies in a hospital, hospice center or any other external setting.
Certain circumstances will require special handling. The death of your tenant may be unexpected, tragic or unnoticed for several days. You may find your renter has opted to die at home instead of in a hospital, nursing home or hospice center. A tenant’s family may have arranged to have a home funeral. In this article, we’ll discuss what (if anything) you need to do.
Landlord Best Practices (Regardless of How or When Your Tenant Died)
When you learn that one of your tenants has died in your rental, there are a few things that you will need to do regardless of the circumstances surrounding their death.
In the simplest scenario, this is a death that you either have been expecting or are made aware of as soon as it happens. Perhaps the family let you know that their relative was approaching their last days. Maybe your tenant let you know that they were planning to pass away at home.
In this situation, the family is likely not taken by surprise and will inform you about what has happened. In other situations, you may be the one to have to call the police or reach out to your tenant’s emergency contact. We’ll examine those in a later section.
Regardless, there are universal steps that you will have to take to ensure things go smoothly with your property, including the termination of the tenancy and working with the executor of your renter’s estate. In every scenario, the assumption is that your tenant lived alone. A lease that still has adults on it after one tenant dies will not need to be terminated, for instance, meaning you may not need to complete all the outlined processes.
Step 1: Obtain Official Notice of Your Tenant’s Death
It is important that you have a written notice of your renter’s death before you move forward with getting the apartment ready for a new tenant. This notice may come from the decedent’s next of kin or executor of their estate. If you are the one who has found your tenant’s body, you will contact the police, who will notify the appropriate next of kin.
No matter how your tenant passed away, this written notice is what will allow you to start the process of terminating your tenant’s lease and securing the property in a lawful manner.
If you learn of the death prior to receiving this written notice, you may go to the property to make sure all doors and windows are locked, but you should not touch any of the tenant’s possessions or remove anything from the apartment. If police are involved, make sure they have cleared the scene and given you permission to enter before going inside.
Step 2: Secure the Rental Unit
Once you have received written notification of your tenant’s death, your next action as a landlord should be to secure your property as soon as possible. This may go beyond simply making sure the doors are locked. If police are involved, you will need to wait until they release the scene before doing so.
If this is a death in which there will be no criminal investigation, you may generally secure the property as soon as you have been formally notified of the death. A post-mortem examination might be performed, but that does not necessarily prevent law enforcement from clearing the scene of death.
Securing the property means changing the locks so that no one can access the property without your knowledge. You don’t know whom your tenant may have given a copy of their key to, and at this point, only authorized persons should be entering the rental unit. This will likely be you and the executor of your tenant’s estate.
When you enter the rental to secure it, you will want to make sure any pets and support or service animals in the unit are taken care of. Do not leave them alone in the apartment. Perhaps the executor of the estate or your tenant’s emergency contact can take them. If not, contact your city’s animal control office for guidance.
Besides changing the locks, checking for safety issues and having any animals removed, you should not touch anything in the apartment. You do not want to be accused of stealing something from the deceased. If you are concerned, video record your actions as you secure the rental unit.
Step 3: Obtain Contact Information for the Executor of Your Renter’s Estate
The executor of your tenant’s estate will be your point of contact from here on out. They will handle the distribution of your renter’s assets, settle any debts your tenant owed (that did not terminate upon their death) and work with you to terminate the lease.
It’s important that you speak with this person as soon as possible. The executor of the estate may not be the same person your tenant designated as an emergency contact, but the emergency contact may know who the executor is. We recommend all landlords use our rental application (included with a MassLandlords membership), which requests tenants provide emergency contact information.
Exchange contact information (the executor should already have yours from the lease, but make sure). Get their name, a phone number and an email address. When you talk with them, work together to find a time for them to come and remove personal effects from the residence. Remember that whoever oversees the estate is also probably trying to make funeral arrangements and may not be immediately available for this project. Patience is key here.
If your tenant died without an executor, and no family comes forward, a personal representative or a court-appointed representative may take over handling the deceased’s estate.
Step 4: Start Working Toward Terminating Your Renter’s Tenancy
It may surprise you to learn that your renter’s tenancy does not immediately terminate upon their death.
If there are other adults on the lease, then the lease continues with the remaining renters. But if your tenant lived alone, the lease becomes part of their estate and is managed by the executor of the estate. This is one reason why it’s so important to have contact information for this person. It’s up to the executor of the estate to release the tenancy.
If your renter was a tenant-at-will – that is, they did not have a traditional lease and were renting on a month-to-month or weekly basis – then the notice of their death essentially serves as notice of termination. Under MGL Ch. 186 Section 12, “if the rent reserved is payable at periods of less than three months, the time of such notice shall be sufficient if it is equal to the interval between the days of payment or thirty days, whichever is longer.” In other words, if your tenant was renting on a month-to-month basis, you are entitled to the rent for the entire next month following the notice (MGL Ch. 186 Section 13). After that, the executor can sign the apartment back over to you.
If your tenant had a lease, then the lease transfers to the tenant’s estate upon their death. While the estate is legally responsible for paying through the remainder of the lease, you and the executor can work together to come up with a solution that works for both of you. The executor probably doesn’t want to pay for an apartment that no one will be using, and you probably want to rent the place out again.
Step 5: Return Your Tenant’s Security Deposit
If your renter paid a security deposit when they moved in, then that money becomes property of the estate when the lease or tenancy eventually terminates. Just as with any tenancy, whether you return the deposit depends on the condition of the apartment.
Make sure you follow all the rules for returning a security deposit. Otherwise, you could end up in court facing treble damages and lawyers’ fees for a misstep. If your tenant kept the place in good shape and all you found was reasonable wear and tear, then return the security deposit to the executor of the estate when the lease or tenancy is over.
If the apartment has damage that is not on your conditions statement and is not covered under “reasonable wear and tear,” then you will want to go through the proper channels to retain the appropriate portion of the security deposit. If your tenant died in a messy way or was not found for some time, you may be able to use the security deposit to go toward cleanup of the death scene, which can get expensive quickly.
If you did not have your tenant sign a conditions statement, then you are not going to be able to withhold anything for damage done during the deceased’s tenancy. However, you may be able to recoup some of the deposit for cleanup related to the tenant’s death. This can get murky; someone may try to argue that damage from death could constitute reasonable wear and tear. Check with an attorney before proceeding if you are in doubt.
Step 6: Take Care of Any Abandoned Property if Necessary
If your tenant designated someone to handle their affairs after their death, then you probably won’t have to deal with items left behind in the residence once the lease is terminated. When you end the tenancy, you’ll do a walk-through with the executor as part of settling the security deposit. This is the time to remind them that they need to remove your tenant’s possessions if any remain.
Massachusetts, like most states, does not have specific laws for handling property after a tenant’s death, so if you do find that personal effects have been left behind, follow the state laws for abandoned property.
Tenant Death FAQ
What if My Tenant Owed Rent when They Died?
According to MGL Ch. 186, Section 6, a tenant who dies owing rent will have that debt passed on to their estate. Therefore, landlords may petition the estate to resolve the debt.
What Happens If My Tenant Unexpectedly Dies in My Rental?
If your tenant had their affairs in order prior to passing away, then you may not even hear about their death until you receive a call from the executor of the estate or receive the official death notice. In those cases, you probably won’t need to do more than what has been outlined in the section above.
However, there are situations when a person dies without any forewarning, catching everyone off guard. If your tenant did not have close family or friends, was the victim of a crime or completed suicide, you may find yourself more involved than otherwise expected. Proceed with care and compassion if you find yourself in any of these circumstances.
What if Another Tenant or I Discover the Body?
Perhaps you show up to do a routine inspection and find that your tenant passed away shortly before your arrival. Or, maybe another renter was walking by and saw the door ajar, only to find their neighbor had collapsed in the entryway. What should you do?
Your first step is to call 911. The emergency operator will be able to guide you until the police arrive. Once the situation is in the hands of first responders, call your tenant’s emergency contact and let them know what happened. Give them whatever information you can, including which police department is handling the scene and whether your renter has been transported to the hospital or the medical examiner’s office. An unexpected death may warrant a post mortem examination, and the body will likely not be transported directly to a funeral home.
The officers on scene may also ask you for your tenant’s emergency contact information. If they do, provide it to them. Remain on site until the police and other first responders are done and have removed the decedent from the premises. Do not touch anything in the housing unit or remove anything from the rental. Secure the unit as soon as the police allow you to.
Above all, try to remain calm. A recently dead body is not dangerous in most circumstances, but use gloves or other protective equipment if you must touch the body, especially if you do not know how the person passed away. This is especially important if you suspect a drug overdose has occurred, as fentanyl can be harmful or fatal even in small amounts and can be transmitted through the skin. Wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, after removing your gloves.
If another tenant is the one who found the deceased, or if tenants from other units noticed the police and rescue presence and have questions, be reassuring but do not give too much information. Your tenant deserves dignity even in death, and their family still needs to be notified. Do not provide graphic details, and unless it is obvious a death has occurred, do not disclose that your renter has passed away until the family has been notified.
What if Your Tenant’s Body Has Been in the Rental Awhile?
Sometimes, a tenant dies in rental housing and their death goes unnoticed for days or weeks. In rare occasions, a body may remain in a housing unit for months or years before it is discovered. Most landlords are going to investigate once the rent is late, but in this age of automatic payments, it could be awhile before the rent stops coming in.
In this worst-case scenario, you may not realize something is amiss until you notice secondary signs of your tenant’s death. You, a neighbor or another tenant may notice the mail piling up. If your tenant had a pet, you may hear the animal barking or scratching at the door of the rental unit. You or someone else may also notice a bad odor coming from the apartment. Decomposition begins as soon as a person dies, and has an unmistakable smell. You may notice this odor within 24 to 72 hours after death, though certain factors can accelerate or slow down the decomposition process (e.g., a body in a hot, humid room is going to decompose faster than a body in a room with an open window during the winter).
If you believe there is a dead body in your rental unit, that constitutes an emergency and should justify entering the unit. 940 CMR 3.17, subsection 6(e) details when a landlord may enter a tenant’s apartment, including to inspect the premises and if you believe the unit has been abandoned by the lessee.
If your suspicions are correct, and your tenant has died in-unit, call 911 immediately. You can call your local non-emergency dispatch number if the person is clearly dead and has been for some time. They will handle assessing the situation and removing the body. You or the police should get in touch with your tenant’s emergency contact, if any.
Once the body has been removed and the police have cleared the scene, move quickly to get the rental unit cleaned. Work with the executor of the estate (if any) regarding belongings. Some things may need to be thrown out (such as a mattress or piece of upholstered furniture that the person died on).
If your tenant dies in the rental and is found shortly after, getting the unit ready for the next renter may be as simple as airing out the unit and having it professionally cleaned as you normally would in between tenancies. However, if there has been decomposition in the apartment, you could be looking at a very expensive process.
Depending on where in the dwelling your tenant died, and how long they were left in the rental before being found, you may need to replace carpets, walls and/or flooring. Porous materials will absorb organic matter quickly, including the bacteria responsible for the decomposition smell that may have alerted you to the death in the first place. You may also be dealing with an infestation of flies related to the decomposition. All of this must be cleaned and sanitized before anyone else can live in the unit.
Who pays for this cleanup, which could cost thousands of dollars? It depends on what’s available. Your tenant might have had a rental insurance policy that covers biohazard remediation. It could be that your own property insurance will cover these costs after an unattended death, however, not all policies include biohazard cleanup. Check with your insurance adjuster if you are unsure. Finally, you may be able to use your tenant’s security deposit toward the cleanup expenses. Depending on the costs involved, which will vary by situation, you may use all or some of these avenues to get your apartment back to a state that is compliant with the state sanitary code.
What if My Housing Unit is the Scene of a Crime?
If your tenant has died tragically as the result of a crime, expect the police to be involved. If you discover your tenant has passed away, call the police as you would in any other circumstance. Defer to law enforcement about contacting next of kin or the emergency contact. They may ask you for that information, or ask you to call.
Until the police clear the scene and give you permission to enter, you will not be able to move anything or do much with the rental. When you have clearance, proceed alongside the executor of the estate regarding the housing unit and your tenant’s belongings.
Your insurance may cover the costs of crime-scene cleanup, but others may not. Depending on the nature of your tenant’s death, this could be a costly endeavor. You should be able to put your tenant’s security deposit toward the cost of biohazard remediation. Check with an attorney if you are unsure of your next steps.
What if a Tenant Completes Suicide in the Apartment?
Suicide is a leading cause of death in America. In 2019, 47,500 people died from suicide, more than double the number of homicides in the same year. People attempt and complete suicide for many reasons, and it may be impossible to know that someone is struggling and considering suicide until after they have passed away. Suicide is not a crime in Massachusetts, but stigmas surrounding mental health and suicide may prevent someone from seeking help.
If you are the one who finds your tenant after their death, call 911 as you would in any other circumstance. Let the police handle contacting your tenant’s next of kin, as suicide is a particularly sensitive matter. This may be a traumatic circumstance for you. If you find yourself struggling in the days after discovering a death in your rental, consider speaking with a mental health professional.
Even if your tenant’s death was self-inflicted, the police will likely treat the death as suspicious until a medical examination rules it as a suicide. This may not always be obvious; less than half of the people who are planning to take their own lives leave a note.
In some cases, you may need to hire a professional cleaning service after a suicide. Again, your renter’s security deposit may be applied toward any damage that resulted from the death, but if you are uncertain, check with an attorney.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide) or suicidal behaviors, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.