How to Deal with Death of a Tenant In a Rental Unit

Landlords are often traumatized by deaths that occur in their rental units, particularly when it is due to drug addiction, such as the widespread use of fentanyl which has become the deadliest killer. Natural deaths are the most common, but discovering a tenant who has overdosed or a homicide or suicide can be extremely distressing for property owners.

Unfortunately, many landlords have encountered such horrific situations, including finding a tenant deceased on the kitchen floor after hiring a contractor to make agreed-upon repairs, or discovering a tenant slumped over a toilet from an overdose. Some landlords have even had to seek mental health counseling to cope with the trauma.

When a tenant passes away, there are many rights and responsibilities that the property owner must fulfill, which we will briefly touch upon here.

Give Tenants Space

It goes without saying that when someone passes away, the first step is to call 911. Landlords or their agents should not interfere and must let the authorities handle the situation. If a coroner is involved, they will have complete control over the rental unit and the tenant’s belongings.

This reminds us of an episode of Law & Order where a hotel owner asked Detective Joe Fontana how long the investigation of a homicide in their hotel would take. The detective responded that it would take as long as necessary, and any obstruction would result in the entire hotel being sealed off with police tape – bad news for business.

The point is, the rental unit may be inaccessible for a while as the authorities carry out their work, especially if the death was the result of a homicide, which could take weeks or even months.

Ideally, the landlord would have emergency contact information in the rental application, but this is not always the case. If the relatives cannot be identified, the police or coroner will take charge of the situation. In cases of homicide or suicide, they will handle everything themselves.

Who do you Trust?

After a tenant’s passing, numerous relatives and others may want access to the property to retrieve sentimental items or belongings of monetary value. This can quickly spiral out of control, especially when there are feuding heirs and multiple parties to communicate with.

To prevent chaos, we recommend having a single point of communication with the trustee or executor appointed by the court to settle the deceased’s affairs. This individual should provide documentation proving their authority to dispose of the estate’s assets. We strongly discourage entertaining requests from anyone else except the authorized decision maker.

To maintain control of the situation, we suggest changing the locks after receiving official clearance. Landlords should not get involved in probate and trust matters beyond the scope of their responsibilities. Instead, they should leave it to the legally entitled decision maker, such as the trustee, executor, or administrator, to deal with the decedent’s personal belongings and property.

Rules to Keep in Mind

It is not uncommon for relatives to claim possessions after a tenant’s passing. However, the decision on who is entitled to what is not up to landlords but rather the individual appointed to settle the estate.

In some cases, the family members may take what they want, leaving behind items. In such situations, the landlord must comply with the rules outlined in California Civil Code – CIV § 1951.3 regarding property abandonment.

If family members take possessions from the unit, it is best practice to obtain a written receipt for the items removed. If any possessions are moved to storage, they should be documented, and the landlord should act as a responsible custodian of any possessions left in the unit to avoid any allegations of missing items.


In the event of a tenant’s passing, it may not be a routine cleanup, and it may be necessary to hire a biohazard specialist. The cost of this service can be expensive, depending on factors such as the cause of death, the extent of bodily decay, and the condition of the flooring. This expense can amount to thousands of dollars, depending on these factors and the time that has passed since the body was discovered.

How to Get a Copy of a Death Certificate

This information can be acquired from family members, but sometimes they may be unable or unwilling to provide it. In such cases, the court can be petitioned to obtain the required information.

Disclosure of Death

According to the law, if the passing of a person occurred more than three years prior to the date of transfer or rental of the property, a rental property owner or their agent is not obligated to inform a buyer or tenant about the death or the manner in which it occurred. Additionally, if the cause of death is related to HIV or AIDS, the landlord is not required to disclose this information or even the fact of the death. However, it is recommended that landlords do not provide false information if asked. We advise clients to be truthful in their responses.

Was their Rent Owed?

If a tenant on a month-to-month tenancy passes away, the tenancy automatically terminates once the landlord becomes aware of the death.

However, if the tenant is on a fixed-term lease, the estate of the deceased tenant is still responsible for the rent due until the lease expires. The death of the tenant should be treated as a breach of the lease agreement.

Under Cal. Civ. Code § 1951.2, landlords have an obligation to take reasonable steps to minimize the damages caused by the breach. Essentially, this means that when a landlord is suffering financial losses due to a tenant’s death, they must take reasonable actions to re-rent the unit and restore cash flow. If the landlord fails to make a reasonable effort to mitigate the damages, they may not be able to recover losses that could have been avoided.

Dealing with Security Deposit

If there are unpaid rent or cleaning expenses that need to be covered to prepare the rental unit for re-rental, the landlord has the right to use the security deposit to pay for these costs. However, if there are extensive cleaning expenses due to a death, the security deposit may not be sufficient to cover the full cost.

If there is a security deposit owed to the late tenant’s estate, it should be made payable to “the estate of [deceased’s name].” The landlord is required by law to provide an itemized accounting of the security deposit deductions, and if an agreement for payment is not reached with the late tenant’s estate, the landlord may need to file a claim in probate.

How to Deal with Lingering Family Members

It is recommended that you follow the advice to change locks and interact only with the trustee or executor of the estate. However, in some cases, family members may attempt to stay in the rental unit after a tenant has passed away.

It is important to determine the legal status of these individuals, whether they are a trespasser, subtenant, or licensee with limited permission to stay in the unit. We can investigate these questions, determine the rights of those still residing in the unit, and provide appropriate legal advice.

If there are subtenants remaining after the master tenant has passed away, our office can potentially raise the rent under Costa-Hawkins. When a family member, caregiver, or other guest is living in the rental unit,we can pursue a forcible detainer action if no tenancy agreement was established.