Question: I rented a four-bedroom house last year and signed a one-year lease. Because the rent was more than I could afford, I rented one of the rooms to a guy I knew from work. We had an oral month-to-month agreement. Last week, he died in an automobile crash. What can I do with his belongings, and what happens to the rent I was expecting from him to make my rent payment?
Answer: Your experience points out the complications that can arise from subletting. Although too late now, the better practice for both you and the owner would have been to have your co-worker sign a direct rental agreement with the owner. In that case, he would have been the owner's tenant and the owner would have to deal with the effects of his death, including the issues of personal property and rent due.
Instead, he was your tenant, and you were his landlord, which places the responsibility on you to deal with his death. First, his death terminates his tenancy and extinguishes any future duty to pay rent 30 days after he last paid rent. The legal responsibility for the last 30 days falls on his estate. No matter whether he left a will or merely left heirs, he has some type of residual estate. Whether you can collect that rent from the estate is uncertain.
You are responsible for the full rent due under the lease because your colleague was never a signatory to the lease.
As your co-worker's landlord you have a duty to protect any property in the house that belonged to him. If you can locate a next of kin or some other representative, you can seek payment of the last 30 days of rent and send a notice of abandoned property to that representative. The complex procedure for dealing with abandoned property is detailed in California Civil Code Sections 1983-1984. In general terms, you must give the representative of the estate 18 days to retrieve the property after sending a written notice of abandonment.
If you do not receive a request for the property within the 18-day notice period and if the property is worth less than $300, you can dispose of it. You must sell it at public auction, with notice to the representative, if it is worth more than $300.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.