Where to turn in a tragic situation

If your tenant dies with no will and no known living relatives, the National Ultimus Haeres Unit will step in to help you deal with the process. Dealing with the sudden death of a tenant is a sad situation for a landlord, but if the tenant has no will and no living relatives, then it can become a long and drawn-out process to resolve.

If this is the case, landlords should contact the National Ultimus Haeres Unit, part of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, as it is the organisation’s role to trace any living relatives that can inherit the estate of the deceased.

If the deceased tenant was the only person named on the lease, the tenancy will end as at the date of death and therefore the deceased tenant’s rent liability ends at this date too*.

However, if they have no will and living relatives, then the landlord shouldn’t enter the property until the Ultimus Haeres Unit has undertaken an inspection to assess the deceased’s assets and remove items of value. After that, the landlord can enter the property and make preparations for clearing and cleaning the property, and claim expenses from the deposit.

SAL member Donryn Dewar was confronted with this situation when an elderly tenant who had rented for more than 20 years passed away in her property in Perth. The police took the keys and undertook an investigation, which lasted about a week, and concluded that he had died of natural causes.

The tenant had a neighbour who told Donryn that he had been in the process of making a will, but when she found the solicitor, they told her that as it had not been signed, he would be considered to have died intestate. Both the neighbour and the solicitor informed Donryn that the tenant appeared to have no living relatives.

Donryn explained what she did next: “We contacted SAL as we had no idea what the next steps were and were referred to the Ultimus Haeres Unit information on the website. We had never heard of them before and so would have had no idea where to go without this help.

“We contacted the Unit who advised us that we could not access the property until they had been through it. Therefore the police handed the keys to the Unit, who went through the property to establish the assets and remove any items of value should a relative be found. They informed us they would advertise for a relative to come forward for eight weeks.

“We got the keys back two-and-a-half weeks after our tenant had passed away and then we were left with the job of removing all the tenant’s effects. The saddest part of this process was the way the property was handed back, literally as if the tenant had been ‘plucked’ from his house with all items as they had been on the day he died.

“We asked the Unit what we had to do with his furniture and effects, but there was no guidance on this, other than to say that it was up to our individual policy. Sadly, the easiest way for us was simply to hire a skip.”

The tenant also had two cats, which had been locked out by the police, so Donryn contacted Cats Protection, who managed to catch one. The other returned much later when she was clearing the house out and it sat in the skip with his owner’s effects.

She also contacted SafeDeposits, but they informed her there was no clear process for her situation.

She said: “I contacted SAL, who told me to lodge the deposit claim. I have done this giving the Unit’s contact details and we are now waiting for the tenant’s response time to ‘time out’, despite the fact that he is deceased. As the tenant had been with us for so many years, the deposit was low and did not cover the costs of clearing out the house.

“In summary, dealing with the Ultimus Haeres unit was relatively straightforward, but a tenant dying without a will is an extremely costly, stressful and, above all, a sad exercise for the landlord. We were lucky in that a neighbour came forward to advise us that our tenant had died and so we were able to proactively start the process.”

Donryn added: “That’s why it is always a good policy to ensure you have next of kin details for your tenants.”

Caroline Elgar, SAL policy manager, said cases like this are very rare. She added: “We always advise landlords to ask their tenants for details of next of kin when they apply for a property.

“When a tenant dies, it’s usually the relatives who get in touch with the landlord, but if you have not heard from anyone and are not aware of any next of kin, then it is best to contact the Ultimus Haeres Unit to let them investigate.”

To read more about the Ultimus Haeres Unit, visit their web page here.

* If the tenancy is in joint names then the tenancy will continue with the surviving tenant responsible for all the terms of the tenancy.

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