Tag Archives: Cook county

What Happens If Your Landlord Dies?

NOTE: After 4 years and 90 questions in the comment section I have closed off this (and all) articles to any more comments. Needless to say this remains a very hot topic that affects more renters than you’d think. I’m not updating this blog anymore and cannot answer any further questions about dead landlords. If your landlord has passed away, you probably need legal assistance. After reading this article for the basics as they apply to Chicago, your next step should be a web search for landlord-tenant attorneys and/or legal aid services for your county or city.

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.

Cook Eviction Stats Part 10: Series Conclusion

About a year ago I encountered several urban legends about the Chicago rental environment that circle around the idea that the system is biased against landlords. I don’t like to see assumptions go unchallenged, so I set out to find out the statistical truth behind each of the component parts. Here are the original assumptions, with their results.

  • The courts favor tenants over landlords in eviction cases. FALSE.
  • The suburban courts, especially in wealthy areas, are more favorable to landlords when it comes to eviction. FALSE.
  • The evolution of the CRLTO is making the landlord-tenant situation progressively worse. TRUE.
  • Eviction only happens to bad landlords in bad areas of town. FALSE.
  • Lawyers and Juries have a marked effect on the outcome of eviction cases. POSSIBLE.
  • The CRLTO is biased against landlords. POSSIBLE.

The courts do not favor landlords in eviction cases.

Across Cook County, the courts have not historically favored landlords over the past 8 years. Just over 62% of landlords won their cases. Therefore, we can say based on raw stats that the system does not empirically favor the tenant. However, the surrounding research shows that the entire justice system favors the plaintiff by default, and with good reason. If someone is going to bring a case to court, chances are they have very good reason for doing so.

When that 62% number is weighed against some of the stats for other types of trials, it comes up short. Compared with felony trials, traffic court, and even housing court in other areas of the country, landlords do have a harder time winning their cases than other types of plaintiffs. So no, officially there is no gross bias, but winning an eviction case isn’t a walk in the park either.

We do need to stop and consider what happens with the cases where the landlord doesn’t win, though. Many of them don’t make it to trial. Sometimes it’s due to successful pre-trial mediation, other times it’s due to clerical errors. Either way, a lot of the “losses” will come back with the errors corrected and “win,” or the tenant will wind up leaving the apartment before trial anyhow, which also counts as a “win.”

Overall, I’d say based on the research we’ve done here that there is no bias at the court level.

The suburban courts don’t make it easier for the landlord.

Some landlords seek to use loopholes in order to file their city cases in suburban courthouses, assuming that they’ll have an easier time winning in an area surrounded by people just like them. If they were going through a jury trial and had to assemble a jury of their peers, maybe this would be the case. But most eviction cases are bench trials, heard only by a judge.

Looking at the five outlying courts in Cook County, especially the ones in the wealthier northern sections of the county, it is actually harder for a landlord to win an eviction case. If you’re trying to win both parts of a joint action case (possession and a money judgment) it’s even tougher.

Additionally, the suburban courthouses are simply not equipped to handle the overflow of Chicago’s massive eviction caseload. The judges aren’t as well-versed in Chicago-specific rental laws. All told, it’s a far better idea to stay within the expected boundaries and file your case in the city where the apartment is located, like you’re supposed to.

The evolving CRLTO is making it tougher to avoid eviction court.

Over the past 8 years, the number of apartments in Chicago has decreased and the population has decreased while the number of evictions has remained consistent. This tells me that it’s getting tougher for landlords and tenants to handle their business on their own without involving the court system. I would suggest that this is related to the evolution of the Chicago Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance, and the associated awareness campaigns that have brought it to the attention of more tenants in recent years.

When it comes to interpersonal conflict, especially over money matters, it is a human tendency to seek an outside authority figure to make the final call. As laws and regulations become more complex, it’s easier for both sides to pass the buck to a higher power instead of trying to work things out between themselves. In the case of Chicago rentals, landlords are afraid (with due reason) of taking any action on their own, lest they be accused of retaliation or “self-help evictions,” both of which are illegal. In the case of tenants, many are all too willing to leverage their landlords’ fear of the city codes in order to get more time in their apartments without paying.

As the CRLTO gets more complicated, it will by default funnel more of these disputes into the court system.

Evictions happen to everyone and affect everyone.

With a 1 in 20 chance of eviction distributed across 550,000 Chicago apartments, it is entirely possible for the owner of a three-flat to dodge eviction court for a decade or so. However, it’s more realistic for a landlord to expect at least one eviction over the course of their investing career and enjoy the pleasant surprise if you manage to avoid it.

Tenants also need to be aware of the odds, especially if they’re rooming with strangers. If your roommate has been evicted before you will have a much harder time finding an apartment. You may wind up having to pay higher rents and more cash up front in order to be considered for any housing at all, let alone your ideal apartment.

Overall, the cost of evictions affects the entire population of Chicago, funneling huge amounts of cash and time away from productive use and into the justice system. That money could be used to purchase and rehab additional apartment buildings, allowing more residents to find housing. Even a 1/3 decrease in eviction filings in a year could potentially free up enough cash to purchase and renovate every bank-owned apartment building in Cook County.

Landlords use the “bias” as a reason to avoid investing in the Chicago market. A far better reason would be the cost of evictions. However, cost is something you can plan around and should not be used as an excuse to avoid an entire market.

Lawyers and Juries don’t win cases. They win Time.

The average eviction case lasts only 3 minutes in the courtroom. Most cases are eventually found in favor of the landlord. The presence of juries make only a 1-2% difference in the final rulings of most court cases. The role of supporting players at eviction court has to be discounted. However, this does not mean they are totally ineffective.

A lawyer representing a landlord does most of their job in the preparation. Many of the 38% of failed eviction cases are due to inadequate preparation or clerical errors, and a good lawyer who knows their stuff can make sure that the landlord gets it right the first time. A lawyer representing a tenant has a better chance of getting a continuance, which buys the tenant more time in the apartment before the axe falls.

If a tenant exercises their right to a jury trial, it will likewise not win the case for them. They will drive up the landlord’s costs and buy themselves even more time in the apartment, but chances are very high that they will still eventually get a visit from the sheriff.

Tenants can “win” eviction cases. There are a handful of reasons why they could get the case thrown out. There are ways they can get the landlord slapped with enough fees to negate any back rent they might owe. They can even appeal or file a countersuit in the event that an eviction goes through unfairly. However, for the most part if a tenant has not paid the rent and the landlord knows what they’re doing, the eviction case will probably be found in favor of the landlord regardless of what happens and who helps out in the middle.

The CRLTO is biased against landlords, and for good reason.

My investigation of the CRLTO was completed well before this series on the courts. However, I wanted to close by referring back to it, as I did find it to be biased in favor of the tenant. Line for line, more duties are loaded onto the landlord and the penalties for infractions are steeper on the landlord side as well. If there is a systemic bias against the landlord in Chicago, it lies within this document, not at the court level. The courts are merely enforcing and interpreting the laws as they stand.

I would argue, though, that there is a good reason for the CRLTO’s strictness. Of the four major things necessary for human survival – food, air, water and shelter – shelter is the only one that is largely handled via private enterprise. It’s also the least easily renewable resource of the four. If you’re a utility or agricultural enterprise dealing with any of the other three, you’d better believe that you will be dealing with government restrictions coming out your ears. Like the CRLTO, most of those laws are to keep the providers from causing harm to the general public. As much as the 1% might dislike it, most laws are written to protect the consumer majority, even if it’s to the detriment of the provider minority. However, for food, water and air quality the restrictions are implemented on a large-scale basis and mostly out of sight of the average layperson.

Housing is the only sector of basic human needs where strangers are regularly providing the raw materials via private commerce. It stands to reason that the government-mandated quality standards for housing are just as robust as they are for the other “big three.” However, because they have to be understood and followed by the common man, housing laws are more “in your face.”

Chicago is a massive city, encompassing all races, ages, income levels and nationalities. There unfortunately cannot be separate rental laws for cold water flats and high rise lofts. The rich and poor cannot be held to different codes. In my opinion, the CRLTO may be beastly and complicated, but so is the Chicago rental population. The two go together perfectly.

Conclusion: It’s not about bias, but about knowing your role.

The greater issue here is tiny private landlords being held to the same standard as massive public utilities companies by the public at large. It isn’t political, nor is it class warfare. Rental housing is a bizarre hybrid of bare necessity and finite resources, slammed into a commercial framework. When you decide to invest in rental property, you are positioning yourself among utility companies and government agencies that provide necessary things for Chicagoans to keep existing safely. Like many of those agencies, the public who uses your services will view your line of work with a culturally acceptable amount of disdain. They will forget that you are running a business, until such time as they’re unhappy with your service.

Is Chicago biased against landlords? Commerce may be biased against housing. Courts may be biased towards the plaintiff. Laws are generally tilted in favor of the consumer. But is Chicago anti-Landlord? Let’s say no. Let’s say, once and for all, no.

Thanks so much for reading this series. Thanks also to the support folks who have made this possible: The Hon. Timothy Evans of Cook County Circuit Court, Rob Boyke at the Cook County Clerk of Court’s IT department, Rich Magnone of Reda, Ciprian, Magnone LLC, and Taylor Southworth.

I’ll be taking Friday off. See you Monday.

This is part of a series on Chicago evictions. You should probably start at the beginning. Here are the rest of the articles:

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Yes, Virginia, there is a bias
Part 3: Are other trials also biased?
Part 4: Comparing districts
Part 5: Are evictions filings increasing?
Part 6: Forcible Entry vs Joint Action
Part 7: What does it mean for tenants?
Part 8: Lawyers and Juries
Part 9: The Cost of Doing Business
Part 10: Series conclusion

Cook Eviction Stats Part 9: The Cost of Doing Business

Evictions in Cook County are a multimillion dollar industry. With close to 40,000 cases happening each year, the amount of time and energy devoted to people who don’t pay their rent is mind-bogglingly vast. In fact, today I want to take some time to discuss what the eviction industry is costing Chicago in terms of lost time and money. And tenants, if you think this doesn’t pertain to you, it does. Remember that the resources that a landlord puts into evictions could otherwise be spent purchasing and rehabilitating the apartment buildings that are currently sitting empty and inaccessible.

Long time readers will know what this means. I’m going to do math for you. Again.

Yay math time!

Yay math time!

(more…)

Cook Eviction Stats Part 5: Are eviction filings increasing?

The Chicago Landlord-Tenant ordinance has been amended many times since its creation in 1986. The most recent changes were in 2004, 2008 and 2010. By and large these changes have been in response to major trends in landlord-tenant behavior. For example, since 2010 landlords have had to tell their tenants the name and address of the bank where a security deposit is held. This was so that tenants could still track down their deposits if the bank foreclosed on their apartment building.

As is often the case with law changes, the general reaction to new CRLTO amendments has involved a lot of hand-wringing and fretting among landlords. Meanwhile, the economic troubles that have plagued our country in the past half a decade would theoretically cause more tenants to miss rent payments and get into situations that might prompt an eviction case. This nasty combination of tighter laws and a weaker economy made me wonder if the rate of eviction filings was getting higher or lower over time.

Evictions by Year: City and Suburbs (more…)

Cook Eviction Stats Part 4: Comparing Districts

How this article started

It is a peculiarity of American evictions that they are held at the county/parish level instead of at the city/municipal level as one might expect. This means that even though Chicago rentals are generally protected by Chicago-specific laws, evictions are handled by the Cook County District courts, of which there are six.

Cook County District Courts
District/Location Coverage
1st, Chicago City of Chicago
2nd, Skokie Northern Suburbs
3rd, Rolling Meadows Northwestern Suburbs
4th, Maywood Western Suburbs
5th, Bridgeview Southwestern Suburbs
6th, Markham Southern Suburbs

(more…)

Cook County Eviction Stats Part 3: Are other trials also biased?

When I started this adventure I based my concept of “a fair court system” on an ideal of 50% of cases won by the plaintiff (the landlord) and 50% won by the defendant (the tenant). Even something between 48-52% would have been sufficient. The results I got from the Cook County Eviction stats over the past 8 years indicated that 62.8% of eviction cases were won by the landlord. If I compared this to my idea of a perfectly fair system it clearly indicated a bias, and not the “anti-landlord” bias purported to exist by many Chicago landlords.

The world is not perfect. Neither is the justice system. I started wondering if my ideal 50/50 split of verdicts was even attainable outside of a courthouse run by androids and angels. What if the court system is structured so that 62.8% is as close as you can get to a fair trial in the US? I started digging to find out the verdict balance in some other types of cases.

Is it possible that the Cook County Eviction court is the fairest one of all?

Could Cook County Eviction court be the fairest one of all?


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Cook County Evictions Part 2: Yes, Virginia, there is a bias.

OK that was mean of me. I gave you a teaser at the end of Monday’s article, indicating that there was definitely a bias in the Cook County courts when it came to evictions. I even gave you a pie chart with the numbers intact but the categories redacted.

When I did my small-scale analysis in May 2012, I came to the conclusion that the system was biased when it came to money judgments but basically fair when it came to getting possession of apartments back from deadbeat tenants. Landlords stood to win their cases about 50% of the time, which is exactly what you’d expect to see in an unbiased system. However, once I obtained the large-scale data from 8 years of eviction history and crunched the numbers, a different picture emerged. This picture will allow us to temporarily put to bed the pervasive urban legend that the courts are biased against landlords.

That’s right. 222,323 cases were found in favor of the landlord. 131,423 cases were found in favor of the tenant. The division is consistent across all six districts and consistent regardless of if you filed for possession only, or for possession and money. So if you’re a landlord, you’ve got just about a 2 out of 3 chance of winning your case. So there. Ha.

Maybe Not. (more…)

Cook County Evictions Revisit Part 1: Intro

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

In May of 2012 I did a three part series that tried to debunk the urban legend that Chicago’s government entities are biased against landlords. I investigated the CRLTO and found it to be weighted heavily in favor of the tenant. I also investigated eviction proceedings using the Cook County Clerk’s website. Based on the information I used, I came to the conclusion that the courts were also biased in favor of the tenant. However, I didn’t feel too confident with those results.

I'm not doing so well in disproving the rumor that I count beans as a hobby, am I?

I’m not doing so well in disproving the rumor that I count beans as a hobby, am I?

(more…)

Judging the Judges (2012 Election Special)

I hope that all of you already have one of these. If not, go get one today!

So unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year you’re aware that we’ve got an election coming up. In fact, early voting started Monday, so get out and do it, y’all. I’m not here to tell you who to vote for. Instead, I’m here to call your attention to the fact that there’s other stuff on the ballot for Chicago voters that may catch them by surprise.

If you’re a landlord or renter you have a couple of choices to make that may be more important than your presidential vote. One involves power – the electrical kind – and the other involves the people downtown at the courthouse who preside over eviction lawsuits.

A Little Early Morning Opacity

I tend to vote early in the day before it gets crowded. This year I’ll have to remember to drink some coffee before I head out, as I’m going to be confronted with some pretty opaque questions on page one of the ballot before I even get to choosing between Mr. Obama (D), Mr. Romney (R), Mr. Johnson (L) and Ms. Stein (G) and assorted candidates for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. I’m also going to have to go earlier than normal, as I’d bet most voters are going to be scratching their heads as they try to untangle these four massive questions and the lines could be longer than normal. (more…)

Landlords in Distress

This boarded up foreclosure in West Garfield Park probably meant more evictions than a week of landlord-tenant cases at the county courthouse. (Photo by Garin Flowers/ Medill News)

A few months ago I did a series of articles on the statistics of Chicago Evictions. However, those articles focused only on tenants with past due balances, omitting the other primary source of evictions. It isn’t always the tenant who falls behind. A landlord in debt to her mortgage lender can put every tenant in her building at risk of eviction if she falls behind on her loan payments. Today I’m investigating landlords to see if there’s any specific risk profile that is a worst-case-scenario for foreclosure, and if landlords are any better than their tenants at making payments on time.

The answers, if you’re curious, are Yes and No.

(more…)

Why Credit Scores are False Prophets for Tenant Reliability

A credit score, according to the Fair Isaac Corporation, is calculated based on a weighted average as indicated below.

Source: http://www.myfico.com/CreditEducation/WhatsInYourScore.aspx

This may come as a shock to landlords. See, landlords generally look at credit scores in hopes that it will give them an easy, quantifiable way of comparing one tenant’s reliability against another, without dipping into criteria that could put the landlord at risk of a fair housing suit. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.

Credit scores are a pay to play racket. They get higher only if you borrow and pay back assorted lenders repeatedly. In the modern economy it’s just shy of entrapment. The best tenant is one who doesn’t engage in risky borrowing beyond their means, and is likely to have a very thin credit history. Saying that you want only tenants with high credit scores in your apartment is like saying you only want high rolling gamblers handling your stock portfolio.

Looking at that chart above, and bearing in mind that the average tenant is younger, less experienced and less wealthy than a homeowner, a large portion of the chart can be ruled out while the info that the landlord really wants is only counting towards a third of the score. (more…)