Redbook Blues - Dealing With Death

Posted By: Nicole Zaitoon Dimensions Online, Legislative Updates,

Let’s be honest; some residents are easier to deal with than others. Like all interpersonal interactions, our personalities align well with specific types of individuals and clash with others. There are days it is hard to be a professional as we all deal with challenging residents. 

However, the majority of our residents are pleasant, good folks. We have an excellent rapport with them. Many of our long-term residents become like family. Maintaining a business relationship with our residents is one of the most difficult aspects of our business, especially for our on-site teams.  

While we have a strictly contractual relationship (TAA Lease) with our residents, it is helpful to always remember that residents are human beings. They are not just unit numbers on a spreadsheet. They are honest, live, flesh-and-blood people with spouses, mothers and fathers, children, brothers and sisters, and friends.  

Theirs and our humanity are especially evident when tragedy occurs, such as a death or serious illness. Fortunately, the REDBOOK, TAA Rental Application, and Lease contract addresses these types of situations.    

Please remember this article does not provide legal advice. Contact one of AATC’s
member attorneys for legal advice if you need legal advice.

To understand a landlord’s obligations when a resident dies, first review the REDBOOK article “Death of a Resident.” This article is an excellent resource. The following are highlights from it:

Emergency Response - If you, your staff, or residents are unsure whether a death occurred, call 911. Let the emergency professionals handle the situation. If you let emergency response folks into the rental unit, stay there while they are inside and make sure the unit is locked when they leave (unless a co-resident or occupant remains). 

Law Enforcement – If the death is confirmed, immediately report it to local law enforcement. If you are aware of possible criminal circumstances surrounding the death, inform the police of those facts. Usually, either the EMS or the police will take care of removing the body. If the unit is a crime scene, you will not be allowed to do any cleaning until the scene is processed for evidence and released.

Sharing Information – In the case of severe illness or death of the resident, it is okay to give the police the name, address, and phone number of the person listed as their emergency contact from their rental application.

Informing Emergency Contact - Ask the police or law enforcement if they will inform the emergency contact about the death. If not, you need to do so. Notifying the emergency contact about a death can be very difficult. Most owners/operators have policies and procedures regarding who from your company notifies the emergency contact. If not, you may need to update or add that to your personnel policies. Obviously, be kind and caring. Genuine empathy and sympathy are of utmost importance.

Access to Unit – On-site personnel are especially vulnerable to allegations of theft after a death. Giving the deceased resident’s property to third persons can be dangerous. What if such people are not who they say they are or are not lawfully entitled to property? The law states that you are liable for giving the property to the wrong person. The best way to solve the problem is to use the TAA Rental Application, which contains a provision that authorizes you in advance to turn over the deceased resident’s property to a specifically named person or relatives upon death or serious illness. 

Parents - If the deceased resident is a young, unmarried person and the correct information in the emergency section has not been filled in, it is usually safe to turn the property over to their parents. But first, verify the parents’ identity and relationship by checking their driver’s licenses and the resident’s rental application (or other means to be sure they are the deceased’s parents). 

Non-Relatives - Beware of former girlfriends, boyfriends, ex-spouses, estranged spouses, or “friends of the family” who show up to claim the property. Do not make a move without checking with your immediate supervisor or lawyer.   

Rent - Technically, the estate of a deceased resident is liable under both the Texas common law and the TAA Lease Contract for payment of rent, damages, late charges, etc., throughout the remainder of the lease term—just like the estate remains liable for payment of a car loan or other financial obligations. If the deceased resident has a will, the Executor of the deceased resident’s estate must give the required advance notice of lease termination before the end of the lease term, just as the resident himself would have had to do. 

Leaseholders & Roommates - The deceased resident’s co-leaseholders and/or roommates who relied on the deceased’s help with the rent are still responsible, jointly and separately. When husband and wife are residents under the lease, and one dies, the surviving spouse is legally bound to honor all obligations under the lease. Therefore, rent obligations need to continue after death. 

Sole Resident Death - Paragraph 27 of the TAA Lease Contract provides that the property is deemed abandoned 10 days after death if the only resident in the dwelling dies. If the relatives or legal heirs have not picked up the resident’s belongings, you can remove and store them after ten days. The property can then be disposed of according to lease contract procedures.

Inquiries & Disclosure -If another resident on property, prospective resident, and/or employee asks you point blank whether a previous occupant of the unit has died in that dwelling, your lawful choices for answering are to: (1) say “yes” or “no” if you know for sure; (2) say, “I don’t know” if you don’t know for sure; (3) simply refuse to answer the question; or (4) state that it is not your policy to disclose such information.

Dealing with the death of a resident can be emotionally and physically overwhelming. Understanding your obligations and limitations helps you, on-site teams, and residents navigate a very difficult situation.

Nicole Zaitoon, Allied Property Management, is AATC’s 2023 Government Affairs Committee Chair and a member of AATC’s Board of Directors.