What Happens If Your Landlord Dies?

In previous articles I’ve addressed what a landlord should do if a tenant dies in the middle of a lease. However, I’ve not discussed the topic from the other side. So what happens to a tenant if the landlord dies?

Regardless of how you feel about your landlord's death, you probably have some questions about what's going to happen to your lease.

Regardless of how you feel about your landlord’s death, you probably have some questions about what’s going to happen to your lease.

I’m not an attorney, and I certainly cannot cover every possible scenario. However, I can address some of the basic questions that may arise. As always, the discussions here pertain to apartments in the Chicago area.

Question 1: Do I have to move out?

No. Your lease is part of the property, just like the refrigerator, the garage and the roof. If the owner sells the building, he/she sells your lease along with it. If the owner dies, your lease continues. You do not have to move out automatically. Your landlord’s heirs cannot suddenly kick you out because they want to move in.

Question 2: Where do I send my rent?

You should continue to send your rent to the address listed on your lease. Once the landlord’s estate is settled, the probate attorney and/or the new owners who have inherited the property will send you written notice of any changes.

If your rent check comes back as undeliverable, hang onto it unopened in the envelope as proof that you tried.

If your rent check comes back as undeliverable, hang onto it unopened in the envelope as proof that you tried.

Question 3: Who’s the new owner?

This is probably the most complicated question. It may take some time for the new owner to be determined, depending on how the property title was held. In other cases, the new owner could be able to step in within a matter of days. In the interim, the executor of the estate will become your main point of contact. This could be someone named in the landlord’s will or a court-appointed probate attorney. Either way, until you are notified in writing of a change in ownership, make sure all dealings regarding your apartment are handled in writing to the landlord’s address as listed on your lease.

If They’re Incorporated

If your landlord was incorporated – either as a corporation or LLC – with other partners, then you have nothing to worry about. The company will survive the death of the landlord. However, if the landlord was the only partner in the company, the entire company’s assets (including your lease) will pass on to the landlord’s heirs.

If They Have Heirs and a Legal Will

Provided the will is legal, the property goes to whoever is specified in the will. For all you know, it might even be you!

Provided the will is legal, the property goes to whoever is specified in the will. For all you know, it might even be you! (Maybe you should be nice to your landlord after all…)

If the landlord had a legal will and designated heirs, the property and your lease will pass on to the heirs specified in the will. These heirs will become your new landlords automatically, although it may take them some time to figure out who will be handling your specific concerns.

If They Have Heirs and No Will

It’s highly unlikely that your landlord will die without a will (“intestate”) but if so, the ownership will be determined through Cook County probate court. Illinois has a very specific order of preference for distributing property among remaining family. Children and living spouses are the first option, followed by parents and siblings, grandparents, great-grandparents, and if all else fails, the property goes to the next closest surviving relative. However, the property may well be distributed evenly among many relatives, so your property could wind up the subject of dispute between squabbling relatives. The most important thing in this case is to remain in close contact with the probate attorney appointed to handle the estate, as any official changes in ownership will come to you from them.

If They Have No Heirs and No Will

escheat happens

Again, this scenario is highly unlikely, but in the case that your landlord had no will and no surviving family, your building will become property of Cook County. (In legal terms, the property “escheats” to the county.)

If The Landlord Owes Outstanding Debts

What if your landlord died while still owing money to somebody? Regardless of what the will says, the landlord’s creditors have to be paid first. This may mean that your apartment will transferred in order to settle a debt. Three common situations where this could occur would be if the landlord had a mortgage on the property, if they had not yet paid contractors for major renovation work at the building, or if they had unpaid back taxes. Either way, the creditor gets your building and you along with it.

Question 4: Can I use this as a reason to break my lease?

Not really. The new owners who inherit the estate probably wouldn’t fault you for wanting to head out early, but since your lease is still valid and your apartment is still intact, you’ll have to follow the same lease break routine that you’d have followed if your landlord was still alive. Please be gentle with the relatives of your landlord when you go to discuss leaving – it is always a delicate and difficult situation.

Question 5: What if the owner lived on site?

All of the above is pretty much consistent if the landlord lived in the same building with you or not. However, if the landlord died in the building (I know, ew!) then you may have grounds for breaking your lease. A death on the property requires special clean up and care. Your property may be sealed for investigation by the coroner. If you can’t get into the property or it’s a health hazard, and the problem continues for over 72 hours, you do have a right to break your lease. The only problem is that you have to provide written notice to your landlord asking them to correct the problem, and figuring out who your new landlord is within 72 hours can be difficult.

Regardless, the most important things in this situation are to find safe substitute housing immediately – a hotel if you have to – and to cooperate with the authorities and the heirs in order to find out when you can safely return. This sort of extreme scenario would merit a call to an attorney to ensure that your needs remain prominent in the minds of those dealing directly with the death.

Question 6: What if my lease expires before the estate is settled?

Complicated estates can take months or even years to parcel out between heirs.

If you’re on a one year lease, it may well be that your lease expires before everything is resolved. Your lease expiration date, like all other aspects of your lease, remains valid even if the owner dies. In Chicago, a landlord has to provide you with at least 30 days written notice if they don’t intend to renew your lease. Unless your landlord did so before death, you have the right to stay in your apartment on a month-to-month lease.

If you choose to move out at the end of your lease, your course of action should be to send a letter stating as much to the same address where you send your rent, at least a month before the last day of the lease.

Question 7: How do I get my security deposit back?

This is probably the most complicated of all of the questions. The first step should be to provide your forwarding address to the executor of the estate when you move out, along with a reminder that they must return a list of itemized deductions within 30 days, and the balance of your deposit, with interest, within 45 days.

If the estate does not return your deposit before the deadline, you do have a right to sue them to get the money back.

Overall the most important things to remember in this kind of situation are:

  • Make sure your voice is heard. It is very easy in the process of settling an estate for the heirs to forget about the deceased’s renters. As soon as an executor is appointed, you must remain a firm presence in the process so that your needs are not forgotten.
  • Be kind and patient. The person who inherits your building may not have any experience as a Chicago landlord. Our landlord-tenant laws are some of the most complex in the country. It takes a while to learn how we do things around here. You’ll have to take some time to read up on the rules yourself, and you may have to gently coach your new landlord on how to do things the right way. Remember that they just lost a family member – please don’t take their inexperience as a reason to take advantage of them.
  • Seek help if you need it. These sorts of complicated situations are why professionals exist. You may deal with grief yourself over the loss, even if the landlord was not a good friend. If the estate spends a long time in probate you may need to consult with an attorney. Like it or not, the death of your landlord means that changes are headed your way, and not all of them will be predictable.
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22 Responses so far.

  1. luke says:

    my landlord died but hes also my boss! so the lawyer has taken over now and he gave me like 4 days to move out its been like 7 and I haven’t yet.i don’t have a written lease just verbal and I was paying weekly! So now I have no job no $$ to get a new place and they’re kicking me out is this legal and should I just listen to him and be homeless,jobless,and oh yeah main reason I took this job is cuz I don’t have a license!! Any help would be awesome!!

    • Kay Cleaves Kay Cleaves says:

      Hi Luke,
      Sorry you’ve been having a rough time. Unfortunately you’d have to speak with an attorney to determine whether your situation is legal or not. Best recommendation I can make is to see if you can stay with a friend or family until you get back on your feet. The type of landlords who are willing to rent to jobless folks are probably not the type of landlords you want to be renting from. You’ll want to find someplace to stay until you can save up enough to cover the first three months of rent, utilities and move-in costs.

      Also consider speaking with local charities that help people in your situation. I know Catholic Charities in my area has been known to assist renters, there are others as well. Not sure of your area but it’s worth a shot.

  2. Rick says:

    The landlord has also passed away. None of the his kids took ownership of appt.And to my knowledge the building is in foreclosure. The other day one of the kids gave gave us a notice to pay a sum of money or get out. We have been living there for over a year. What should we do.?

    • Kay Cleaves Kay Cleaves says:

      I’d start looking for a new apartment if I were you. If you’ve been paying proper rent to the address specified in your lease or last written contact from the estate, then you owe nothing else to the heirs.

      Given that the property is in foreclosure you’ll want to verify who owns it by checking with your county’s recorder of deeds before paying the heirs. Ownership is usually a matter of public record.

      If you’re on a month to month lease or your prior lease has expired the heirs do have a right to increase your rent with 30 days notice, provided they still own the property.

      Regardless, it sounds like this is not a healthy rental situation and you would be better off elsewhere. It’s better to start looking on your own terms than it is to wait for the bank to give you 60 days notice after they take over the building.

  3. Amy says:

    My landlord passed away. In his will he left the places he owned to his girlfriend. Well she wrote the will in her hand writing and he signed. Meaning the will is no good. And now his places r in probate between his children and his girlfriend. We have lived here for 2 yrs and r current on our rent. My husband called her and told her done things needed to be fixed as she still collected our rent. When he called her she informed him she wasn’t fixing anything. They had words back and forth and now I was delivered through mail not certified or registered just regular mail from a lawyer stating she had hired is and our lease was up and she wants us out by the end of the month. Mind u our lease has been up for a year now. She was angry for us needing things done. what do we do? She is not only bring unfair and unjust but just mean. When speaking to her she also said if she was to change herons and allow us to stay that we would have to get rid of our pets in which our landlord had iringinally let us move in with.

    • Kay Cleaves Kay Cleaves says:

      Hi Amy. Sounds like a real mess you’ve got there.

      You have two options.

      1. Find a new apartment and leave by the end of the month. Wash your hands of this mess and find a landlord who’s willing to maintain their investment.

      2. Stay and be willing to deal with an eviction lawsuit. If what you say is true about the landlord sending you notice to leave because you requested repairs, that could be considered “retaliation” and would work in your favor to have an eviction case dismissed.

      Since leases continue with the property regardless of who buys it/inherits it, many landlords who take over new property will have the tenants sign new leases so that everyone’s on their paperwork. I’m not entirely surprised that she’s given you a “sign my paperwork or get out” scenario. It’s the cause-effect chain that’s the kicker.

      Even so, if the property is in probate and the current owner does not want you there with your pets it’s probably time to move along. If you survive the eviction and stay put it’s likely that you’ll be hit with a massive ding on your deposit when you go for “pet damages.” I’d say it’s best to move along to a new location where your whole family is welcome, pets included.

  4. Amy says:

    Sorry for bad typing

  5. Heather says:

    hi, my landlord passed away about a month and a half ago. His is supposedly came by the day after his death asking about how the rent was paid and such things like that concerning the property. We went ahead and sent her the rent for the first month after the passing of our landlord. However, I am skeptical as to who this lady is because she showed no proof of ownership of the property, being the sister or sibling I’m sorry of our landlord and we had never heard of her before this passing of him.my question for you is how do I go about finding out who legally owns my landlord’s house and property now that he has passed away? should I send the rent to this lady that is stating she is the landlord sister? is there a way to find out if the property and house is in probate at the moment? If it is in probate about how long will it take before we know who we have to pay rent to? I appreciate your time

    • Kay Cleaves Kay Cleaves says:

      Heather, the best place to check to find out who currently owns the property is with the County Recorder of Deeds. If you’re in Cook County (Chicago and nearby suburbs) here’s how to check:

      1. Look up the building on cookcountypropertyinfo.com to find the PIN.
      2. Take that pin over to cookrecorder.com and look up the recorded transactions.

      Bear in mind that the published county data is going to be at least a month behind real life, so in the event of a probate case it may be tough to tell.

      As for probate, you can also check that online at the Cook County Clerk of Court: http://www.cookcountyclerkofcourt.org/?section=CASEINFOPage&CASEINFOPage=4210

      Regardless, if there is a change to where your rent should go the new owner should notify you in writing, ideally cosigned by an attorney. If they moved your deposit to a new bank they should also have notified you of the new location (Bank name and address) within 14 days of doing so.

      If you receive a notice to this end I don’t think you can be found at fault for following the instructions. If you would like to follow the “trust but verify” route and check on the probate status I wouldn’t fault you for it though.

  6. sylvia says:

    My 88 year old mothers landlord passed away. My mom was, taking care of her and had a reduction in rent. My mom lived there for over 10 years, with no lease. Lawyers wrote a letter saying she has 30 days to move or have to pay 3000 a month. What can she do? Need help

    • Kay Cleaves Kay Cleaves says:

      Sorry to hear that the new owners are being a pain. If your mother had no lease then by default she was on what’s called a month-to-month agreement. This means the terms of her stay – including how much she’s paying in rent and how long she can remain there – can be changed with one month’s notice. If the lawyers’ letter says she has to leave in 30 days, then she needs to find a new place. She may be able to speak to the new owner and request some extra time – maybe another couple of weeks to a month – if she has extreme circumstances that make it tough for her to find a new place in a month. However, with no written lease she has no protection against something like this occurring.

  7. tomara owens says:

    When my landlord died his children took over the property that I had lived in for over 10 years .I stayed for another year and signed a new lease with them and moved out after only 1yr.There were no damages or any reason for my security deposit to be held I was no given an itemized list and was told that was between me and the deceased. What can do live in NC and wanted to know can I sue for the interest on my deposit since it was suppose to be in a bank for over 10 years ,since it was held unlawfully can I sue for double or triple the amount in my state or will the judge have to decide?


    • Kay Cleaves Kay Cleaves says:

      Sorry, my experience is pretty exclusive to Chicago. I wouldn’t want to tell you something that is incorrect for NC. Your best bet would be to contact a local attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant matters. You can search avvo.com by specialty for good attorneys. The profiles there will let you know if they offer a free initial consultation.

  8. Ant says:

    My landlord was also my grandfather (father to my deceased mother). We never had a lease, just a verbal contract. He died last month, I heard the property is going to an estate run by my greedy aunt. My uncle thinks he should run the estate. My mother should have run the estate if she were still alive. Since I am family, do I need to continue to pay rent?

    Not sure what to do. Any advise would be helpful.

    • Kay Cleaves Kay Cleaves says:

      You need to continue to pay rent to the same place it was going before until you hear otherwise in writing. Ideally, since the property ownership is in limbo, pay by cashier’s check or money order and get a receipt when you pay it as proof that you’ve been honoring your end of your verbal agreement with your grandfather.

      Even a verbal agreement with family counts as a month-to-month lease. That agreement remains in force as leases run with the building, not with the owner. If you stop honoring your end of the contract and your “greedy aunt” gets the property, you’d better believe she’ll try to bump you out of there and you won’t have a legal leg to stand on. If you can prove that you held up your part of the bargain through the whole estate settlement, you’ll have a lot more clout if you want to stay there after the new owner is named.

  9. McKenzie says:

    What happens if the landlord owns (finances) the house (the house is under his name) and has rented out the rooms to tenants and he has suddenly passed away. His son is passing on his rights to his grandfather (landlords dad) as EX of the estate, but this has not been filed in the Texas courts. Do the roommates have rights to still stay in the house and if so do they have to be given 30 days notice to vacate the property?

    Also, a few days before the landlord died there was a gas leak and the gas was shut off. Repairs are costly and have to be done in order to get the gas turned back on. Who rightfully should take care of this cost since the landlord is dead and no one is appointed to the estate as of yet.

    should the roommates still pay rent? I don’t believe their intentions are to pay this I why I am asking.

    Right now the house is in limbo and were not sure of the Texas laws in regards to this.

    Thank you for any advise you can provide!

  10. Laurel McKernan says:

    My 92 yo father with Alzheimer’s was cared for in his home by my sister who was DPOA of finance and for several years she managed all of my dad’s finances including writing checks, paying bills etc,. My Dad’s DPOA for health was activated. We did not have guardianship. There is lots of medical documentation regarding his incapacity. A year ago my brother, his wife, and adult son moved in. Repeatedly they were asked by the DPOA of finance to sign a month to month rental agreement and or help pay utilities – they refused. My dad was repeatedly hospitalized and a few months ago moved into a nursing home. The DPOa of finance had a lawyer send the freeloaders a letter stating they were guests and needed to move out so the house could be put on the market to qualify for Medicaid They responded by producing a lease (the DPOA had never seen it) that was purportedly signed by my dad a few days before my dad was hospitalized and is renewable year to year. My dad could not answer a simple question at that point in time. The lease can only be broken by cause that includes things like conviction of felony and they only have to pay 100 dollars a month in rent. They have to not pay rent x 3 months then get a 60 day notice to forced to move out. Also they stated they did not accept authority of DPOA of finance and that no was handling my father’s finances so they could not pay rent. (Untrue the bank and nursing home accepted the duly executed DPOA) . We are still paying taxes, heat electric, internet cable etc as our lawyers says if we have them put utilities in their name it gives them more right to the house. We filed in probate court to get guardianship but my dad passed away too soon.

    Now that my dad has died the DPOA is the executor of the estate. There is a reverse mortgage on the house, but with equity in the home remaining. There are 5 beneficiaries (one living in the house). Is their lease valid for another 9 months? Do we challenge the validity of the lease in court? Can we at least make rent fair market value? How do we get them out?

  11. Amanda says:

    My landlord passed away in October. I knew nothing about it until I received a letter in the mail saying he had passed away and to send my rental payments to another realtor. My lease was up at the end of October so I would have had to sign a new lease. I was waiting to see if they would file something in court so I could pay them then but they haven’t. What should I do???

  12. randy decker says:

    My landlord died and his brother has tooken over the estate and said we can stay til bank takes property what should i do what is my rights

  13. Nicole says:

    Hey, my landlord died and I found him in his house already passed away. To my knowledge, he has no surviving family. Maybe a nephew that he don’t talk to. His will (if he has one) has been very wishy washy. He never knew who to leave his things to. I just recently started renting out the back part of the house month to month and paid him in cash. The cops told me I could stay there until the lights got cut off because he paid that. What if I paid the light bill though and I heard maybe if I paid the property tax when it came in the mail then nobody would come looking to take the house because of unpaid bills? Would I be able to stay in the house (or at least still in the back) until things got sorted? What are my options? Can you please reply asap! Thank you!

    • Kay Cleaves Kay Cleaves says:

      Wow, what a horrible situation to go through. You have my sympathies. I’m not sure what state you’re in – my experience is exclusive to Chicago IL. Around here, a lease runs with the property so even if someone new takes over ownership they’d have to give you a month’s notice before you have to leave. I wouldn’t get into paying property taxes for the place until you talk with an attorney and a financial planner. There could be a mortgage on the property, in which case paying just the taxes might protect you from the county but not the bank. If you’re thinking of paying the property taxes and the title is in dispute, you’re walking down the path of trying to assume ownership, even if it’s unintentional. Best to get some legal advice before you start laying out additional funds beyond your verbal rent agreement.

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