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What happens to a rental lease when a tenant dies?

  • Under a new law, a tenant’s estate can end a lease by providing written notice to the landlord
  • If the tenant doesn’t have a will, surrogate court will determine the estate’s administrator
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By Celia Young  |
December 4, 2023 - 9:30AM
Moving boxes.

Thanks to a new law, an estate doesn't have to pay out the remainder of the lease.


What happens to a lease when the tenant dies? Is it automatically broken? Does that person's family have to pay the balance or unpaid rent? Can heirs take over the lease?

Thanks to a new law, an estate of a deceased tenant can cancel the lease with written notice to the landlord, our experts say. However in most cases, a landlord will consider the lease ended with the death of the tenant.

“Many landlords will end the lease once all remaining belongings of the deceased have been removed,” says Dennis Hughes, a broker at Corcoran.

If there is no estate in place, there are a few possible alternative courses of action through New York City’s court system.

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article was published in June 2019. We are representing it here with new information for November 2023.] 

Death and leases

If the landlord doesn’t consider the lease terminated by the death of the tenant, the executor or legal representative of a deceased tenant can cancel it by notifying the landlord in writing and surrendering the apartment, under a law signed by Governor Kathy Hochul in November. 

Previously, an estate had to request to sublet the apartment under New York state’s real property law to end a lease, or at least get out of paying through the end of the lease’s term. An estate can still choose to sublet an apartment with “the landlord's knowledge and consent,” says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer at Himmelstein McConnell Gribben & Joseph (and a Brick sponsor FYI). 

“If they unreasonably refuse consent, the lease is deemed terminated,” Himmelstein says.

Meanwhile, the estate is still responsible for arrears, damages, and other expenses the landlord incurs “as a direct result of the tenant’s death.” But under the new 2023 law, the estate isn’t responsible for paying the remainder of the lease.

Where there’s no will, there’s a way

If the tenant hasn't left a will, the matter may need to go through a process called administration in surrogate court, which appoints a descendant as administrator of the estate. That administrator may then enter the apartment and dispose of the tenant's property, or distribute it among their heirs. 

If the deceased person has less than $50,000 in personal property—such as cash, bonds, vehicles, and artwork—you can go through a process called voluntary administration to divide and give away the deceased’s property. It’s a simplified version of becoming an administrator of a tenant’s estate.

The administrator would also be considered liable for the rent until they notify the landlord that they are canceling the lease.

Family matters

If the tenant's family wants to take over the lease, they have to follow certain legal proceedings. 

“The estate can 'occupy' the apartment, but it's a legal occupancy, not a physical possession,” Himmelstein says. “The administrator can't live in the apartment or put someone in it.” 

There is an exception to this law for family members who were living with the tenant while they were alive. In this case, they can continue to occupy the apartment for the duration of the lease. 

If the apartment in question is rent-stabilized, a family member may take it over if they qualify for succession rights. Usually, the family member would need to have lived in the apartment with the previous tenant for at least two years, or just one year if that family member is a senior citizen or disabled person.

Finally, if no family member comes forward, the landlord can have a public administrator named by surrogate court, and have the apartment returned to their possession.

A previous version of this article contained reporting by Alanna Schubach.

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Celia Young Headshot

Celia Young

Senior Writer

Celia Young is a senior writer at Brick Underground where she covers New York City residential real estate. She graduated from Brandeis University and previously covered local business at the Milwaukee Business Journal, entertainment at Madison Magazine, and commercial real estate at Commercial Observer. She currently resides in Brooklyn.

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