Landlords: Beware of Old, Loner Tenants

New York landlords can have a lot of problems with older tenants. Not only do older tenants often have stabilized rents which leave the landlord with a 75% haircut on the rent they collect, older tenants also tend to call in more complaints against their landlords. And just to stick it to their landlord one last time, older tenants often make it impossible for the landlord to re-lease the apartment for months after their deaths.

I know, crying for landlords is like crying for the football fan at the Superbowl because he is watching from a luxury box on the 40-yard line instead of the 50 yard line. And I am probably not going to earn a lot of street cred by coming to the defense of landlords over their tenants, especially in the height of the Covid-19 crisis. But landlords really are people too (or ingeniously disguised robots), and landlords do have expenses they have to pay regardless of their tenant’s excuses.

So imagine if a landlord has to go three, four, even six months not receiving rent because a deceased tenant’s stuff is in the apartment and the landlord cannot legally remove it. This is what happens when that older tenant passes away.

When a tenant passes away in their apartment in New York the landlord is left in a really bad position: Before they can enter the premises, the landlord (or the deceased tenant’s family) needs to get Court approval. And since the tenant is deceased, that approval usually comes in the form of a Probate or Estate Administration Proceeding. But this requires (a) finding the tenant’s nearest family members and finding out if they want to administer to the estate (and be honest, do you think your landlord has any clue who these people are?), (b) asking the family to commence Probate, or (c) having the tenant’s executor reach out to the family to say that they will handle the tenant’s estate’s affairs. Finding these parties and having them file Court paperwork could take months.

Once the Court has named an Executor or Administrator (again, more months) that person goes to the local police precinct, gets permission to join them in unsealing the apartment (which at this point has police tape in front of the door), and empties the apartment of all belongings and throws out the deceased tenant’s undesirable personal property. Each of these steps can take additional days or months, especially if the Executor is not local and has to plan a trip to New York.

The landlord can petition the Court so he can act as Administrator, but usually a Court-appointed attorney (through the “Public Administrator’s” office) needs to commence the case, and these attorneys tend to be incredibly busy. If a tenant dies with less than $30,000 in their estate then a Small Estate Administration may be helpful in moving the court forward (since these proceedings are done same-day), but any substantial funds in the tenant’s estate will blow up this backdoor approach.

It should be no surprise that many landlords look the other way while a deceased tenant’s family empties out the apartment, but if the tenant died in the apartment and lived alone there will be police tape that must be removed (a NO NO). And while a landlord is entitled to past-due rent from the deceased tenant, collecting debts from an estate often costs legal and court fees, and if the elderly tenant was rent stabilized the cost to collect that past-due rent may not be worth it.

My suggestion to all landlords is to make sure you know an elderly tenant’s next of kin and contact information, and try to suggest they set up a Will. The cynic in me says a landlord should suggest the tenant go to a hospital if they feel ill (instead of dying in their apartment, thus the police tape issue) or even buying out their lease, but both seem unlikely. So if you are a landlord leasing an apartment to an older, single tenant be ready to deal with a little aggravation and a long wait.



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