• |
  • Announcements: Property Management Training Courses Coming Soon!

Dealing with the Death of a Tenant in California Rental Property

Published on January 9, 2024 by Patti Widget under Tenant Issues

Dealing with the death of a tenant in California can be a challenging and emotionally charged situation, particularly for landlords who haven’t been through that type of situation before. The process involves navigating legal obligations, sensitivity, and understanding the complexities surrounding both the possession of the unit and the handling of leftover personal property.

Termination of Lease

The termination of a lease after the death of a tenant involves nuanced legal considerations and the type of lease in place plays a significant role in determining the timeline. In California, the lease doesn’t automatically end upon the death of a tenant; rather, certain factors influence how the process unfolds.

Fixed-Term Lease

If the tenant who passed away had a fixed-term lease, the lease generally continues until its expiration. In this scenario, the tenant’s estate is typically responsible for fulfilling the lease obligations, including paying rent, until the end of the lease term.

Alternatively, the estate has the option to return possession of the rental unit to the landlord. This act effectively terminates the lease, relieving the estate of further rent obligations. The process of returning possession involves clearing out the tenant’s belongings and formally surrendering the property.

Month-to-Month Lease

If the deceased tenant was on a month-to-month lease, the lease is deemed terminated 30 days after the last rent payment was made by the deceased. Additionally, a 30-day notice is not required in this case, and the lease automatically concludes after this period.

Tenant’s Belongings

When a tenant passes away, the handling of their belongings is a delicate process that involves legal considerations and a compassionate approach. The landlord’s actions may vary depending on the presence of pets, involvement of an executor, or the identification of next of kin. Here is a more detailed expansion on what a landlord can do with a tenant’s belongings in various scenarios


If pets are present in the rental unit, the landlord should contact animal control to ensure the safe and appropriate handling of the animals.

Executor Appointment

Communication with the executor is essential. Typically, the executor will reach out to the landlord, but if not, the landlord should initiate contact once an executor is assigned.

The executor is responsible for settling the remaining rent payments through the lease period. If the lease is long-term and the executor prefers not to continue payments, the landlord and executor can discuss options such as removing the property or continuing rent payments while the belongings remain in the unit.

Unknown Executor or Next of Kin

If there is no known executor or next of kin, the landlord may treat the property as abandoned and follow legal procedures outlined in California Civil Code §§ 1951.3 and/or 1984.

The following steps are typically taken

  • Send a statutory compliant “Notice of Belief of Abandonment” and/or “Right to Reclaim Abandoned Property” 30 days after the last lease payment by the deceased tenant.
  • Wait 19 days after mailing the notice (personal service is not possible in the case of a deceased tenant).
  • If the property is believed to be worth less than $700, it can be disposed of.
  • If the property is believed to be worth more than $700, it should be sold at a public auction in California. The landlord can recover the cost of storage from the auction proceeds and issue the remaining funds to the county where the rental is located.

Security Deposit

Handling a deceased tenant’s security deposit involves careful attention to legal and ethical considerations, especially when there are outstanding rent payments, damage repair, or cleanup related to the decedent’s body.

Normal Deductions

Start by calculating any back rent owed by the deceased tenant. Deduct this amount from the security deposit. If there is a remaining balance, this is typically a debt that the tenant’s estate is responsible for settling.

Assess the condition of the rental unit and identify any damages that exceed normal wear and tear. Deduct the cost of repairing such damages from the security deposit.

If there are cleanup expenses related to the decedent’s body, these costs should also be deducted from the security deposit. This may include biohazard cleanup services to restore the property to a habitable condition.

Disposition of Remaining Security Deposit

If, after deducting back rent, damage repair, and cleanup costs, there is money left over from the security deposit, a check should be issued to the estate.

The check should be accompanied by a clear and detailed statement outlining the deductions made and the remaining balance being returned to the estate.

Claim for Outstanding Balances

If the security deposit does not cover all the outstanding balances, including rent owed, damages, and cleanup costs, the landlord may need to pursue a claim through probate.

Retaking Possession after Death of a Tenant in a Rental Unit

Obtaining a “Release to the Rights of Possession” letter from the executor is a critical step for landlords when a tenant has passed away. This letter serves as formal documentation, signaling the legal return of possession of the rental unit to the landlord.

After all personal items are removed and the executor officially releases possession, the landlord should conduct a thorough inspection of the rental unit. Any necessary repairs or cleaning related to the previous tenancy should be addressed at this stage.

Disclosing Death of a Tenant

California law requires landlords to provide specific disclosures regarding the death of a prior tenant if the tenant died in the rental unit. This obligation is outlined in Civil Code § 1710.2 and is designed to ensure transparency and provide potential tenants with relevant information about the property’s history.

The landlord must make this disclosure for the next three years following the death of the tenant. The landlord is required to disclose specific details related to the death. This includes information about how the prior tenant died, if known. However, there is an exception to this rule, as explained below.

Throughout this process, landlords should be empathetic and communicate transparently with the deceased tenant’s representatives. Seeking legal advice may be beneficial to ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations. Each situation can be unique, and a thoughtful and legal approach is crucial when dealing with the death of a tenant.

© 2024 | Widgets Way | One Time Payment