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Rent it Right by Janet Portman, Inman News

Q: We’re facing a situation that’s pretty unbelievable. My mother-in-law passed away in her apartment on the day rent was due. My wife found her that day, and notified management immediately. We cleaned out the apartment within a few days, and were shocked to learn that management expects us to pay that month’s rent! Can this be right? –Alan J. A: As cold-hearted as it appears, management’s demand for rent is probably legal. But that rent should come out of your mother-in-law’s estate, not your pockets.

By law, any debts owed by a deceased person must be paid by the estate, and then the remaining assets are distributed according to the will or trust, or according to your state’s laws of intestate succession, if there’s neither a will nor a trust.

But beneficiaries are not directly liable for these debts unless, of course, they were jointly responsible for them in the first place. If there’s no money in the estate, then the landlord loses out.

On a practical level, it’s fair for the landlord to expect rent while you and your wife were emptying the apartment. During that time, the unit was tied up and could not be cleaned or readied for the next resident. Is it fair for the landlord to absorb this cost when the ex-tenant’s estate could cover it? Under the circumstances, the landlord certainly could have shown a little compassion and asked for only enough rent to cover the few days you were working in the unit.

Many states have laws that specify what happens to a lease when a tenant dies. California, for example, differentiates between a deceased tenant with a lease and one with only a month-to-month rental agreement. If there’s a lease, the tenant’s death does not terminate the lease. Instead, landlords must treat the situation as if the tenant had moved away during the lease term, without a legal justification. These landlords must make reasonable efforts to re-rent, and once the unit is occupied, the estate’s responsibility for the rent ends.

With month-to-month tenants, the estate’s responsibility for the rent will end 30 days after the tenant had last paid rent. This is welcome news for you if your mother-in-law was a monthly tenant in California, because it would mean that the tenancy terminated on the precise day she died.

To spin this out a bit further, when you cleaned and emptied the apartment, you were technically trespassing, but apparently your presence was tolerated by management. That fact doesn’t obligate you to pay rent. To find the exact answer to your question, as you can see, you will have to find out how your state treats leases and rental agreements when the tenant dies.

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 [email protected] Copyright 2010 Janet Portman

See Janet Portmans feature, Tenants Take Beefs to the Tweets.
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