Self Storage in Wisconsin: What if a Renter Dies?

March 25, 2009

1. Accepting Payment. If you have a deceased renter, only accept payment from the renter’s estate (i.e. the personal representative, trustee or administrator of the estate) so as to not give additional people rights, such as a right to notice of default. In general (deceased renter or not), if you accept payment, especially personal checks from anyone other than the renter on the lease, you may create notice rights. Courts in Wisconsin and across the country are widely construing who has notice rights under Wisconsin’s Self Storage Facilities statute §704.90, and similar statutes in other states, resulting in duties owed to people beyond the renter named in the lease. This becomes a problem as you may not have the information you need to properly give the additional “renters” notice under Sec. 704.90, Stats.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently found that parties who were listed in a rental agreement as parties permitted to access the storage unit had a right to notice under §704.90. The court found the rental agreement ambiguous even though the lease specifically stated that the renter was the sole renter of the space. As a result of the self storage facility’s failure to provide notice to these parties who were not listed as renters or alternate contacts, the Court affirmed an $18,375 verdict including $100,000 in punitive damages and $282,154 in attorney fees and costs against the self storage facility. See Cook v. Public Storage, 2008 WI APP 155. If you create rights for a party not named as a renter in your rental agreement, you may unknowingly expose yourself to damages significantly greater than the value of stored property or past due rent.

2. Notices. Whenever a renter is in default and you have lost contact with him or her, you should make an effort to determine if the renter is deceased (i.e. search the local obituaries and/or notices of death for the renter’s name). If you know a renter is deceased, you should continue to comply with your rental agreement and state statute. Do not, however, rely solely on notice given to the renter at his/her address. You can try to correspond with the renter’s estate by addressing notices to him/her there, but giving statutory notice of default at that address could fail if you know he or she is deceased. Instead, use the alternate contact listed by the renter to give notice of default. If possible, ask the alternate contact if an estate has been or is likely to be opened.

3. If an Estate is Opened. In Wisconsin you can check to see if an estate has been opened by doing a simple case search at the Wisconsin Circuit Court Web site. If an estate is opened for a deceased renter, contact the personal representative or special administrator appointed for the estate. You will want to request a copy of the Domiciliary Letters appointing the personal representative (PR), Letter of Trust for a Trustee, or Letters of Special Administration for a special administrator from the appointed party or from the probate court. With these letters you can see what authority has been granted to the particular party. If the rent is in default and/or if the estate does not remove the property from your facility, you will want to file a claim against the estate with the probate court. The period for filing a claim in Wisconsin expires sometime between three and four months following the opening of the estate, as set by the probate court. Claims that are not filed within the designated claim period will likely be denied.

4. If no Estate is Opened. If no estate is opened you should contact your attorney to deermine which of several available options best fit the particular circumstances of your case.

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