While hopefully your storage facility doesn’t have to deal with tenant deaths often, it’s important to know the proper procedures to follow when a customer passes away. This can be complicated by lack of information, quarreling relatives, late bills, and more. Here’s what you need to know.
Being Aware of When A Tenant Passes Away
Ideally, when a tenant dies, the relatives will inform your facility. Realistically, they’ll be dealing with grief, funeral arrangements, and getting other affairs in order. They may not even know that the departed had a self storage unit.
As a preventive step, consider checking the local obituaries occasionally to see if any of the people covered rent a storage unit at your facility. If so, call the relatives listed as emergency contacts in the tenant’s files. Also, call the probate court and find out if the deceased's estate has gone through probate, and if there is an executor.
Next, contact the executor. Together, you can determine what to do with the tenant’s self-storage unit.
If you’re unable to contact anyone on your self storage tenant’s emergency list and you can’t locate any relatives, over-lock the unit so that if a relative does show up, they will not be able to access the unit without talking to you.
Check the tenant’s address in your records and send a certified letter. Then, you can start the process to foreclose and bring the unit to auction. Make sure the probate period has passed, however, before you do that. Sometimes there is a waiting period you need to go through.
Now, you may never see the obituary for a deceased tenant. In those cases, their unit will eventually go to auction. Alternately, they may have set up automatic payments, and you may not find out that they’ve passed away for years. By checking the obituaries, you can at least exercise due diligence.
If you don’t learn about the death of a tenant and a family member has the code and key, you won’t be able to stop them from continuing to use the unit.
However, if the family member comes to the office, things are a bit different. If a relative comes, says that the tenant has passed away, and that they need access, they then need to provide a death certificate and a court order naming them the executor of the estate. You can make copies and file them. With that proof, the relative can access the unit, continue or cancel the rental agreement, and so on.
This becomes especially important when multiple family members come to the facility claiming the right to access the unit. If they do not have the required paperwork, let them know that they have to file with probate court and bring the proper paperwork back.
When a tenant passes away, any back rent still has to be paid. If the executor pays the bill current, they can then access the unit. Otherwise, the unit goes through the normal foreclosure procedures and can eventually go to auction.
Sometimes, the executor isn’t willing or able to pay the back rent. In that case, follow the legal foreclosure procedures. If the executor wants to pay, they may be able to get together the money before the unit goes to auction. Otherwise, when it does go to auction, your facility can at least recoup some of the rental costs.
Small Estate Laws
Finally, we come to small estate laws, which specifically affect estates worth under about $15,000, though this amount can vary. Also, only about twenty states have small estate laws. It’s your responsibility to understand the specifics for your state.
Basically, they work like this: A family member will need to sign a small estate affidavit stating that the total value of the estate is too low to go through probate. The family member can then present the facility with the affidavit and can then access the unit. Some states do require the document to be filed with the court. In that case, the family member must also bring you the resulting court order in addition to the affidavit.
Keep a copy of both with the client’s files. That will protect you and your facility from legal action if the family member has committed fraud, or someone has a counter-claim.
Dealing with the death of a tenant is a layered issue, but the above advice should help you prepare for the inevitability. Whatever you do, follow your state’s laws and always maintain professionalism.