The Death of a Tenant - Practical Problems That Can Arise

The death of a tenant presents practical as well as legal issues for a landlord.

Sadly, all too often the first of these can be the absence of any family member or other individual either willing or able to take on responsibility for disposing of the body.

It often comes of something as a surprise to the relatives to find that in law, it is not possible to "own" the body". It cannot be bought, sold or even stolen. As the phrase goes "there is no property in a corpse". As a result the deceased's wishes (even if set out in a will) are just that - they do not have any force in law.

The legal obligation for disposal of the body fall on the personal representatives. If no personal representatives had been appointed (for example if there is no will), the person with the highest right to take out a grant of administration under the intestacy rules has the right to take possession of the body.

In the absence of any personal representatives or others with a better right, the law places responsibility for the disposal of the body on the householder where the person has died - on the basis that they therefore have lawful possession of it. This includes a NHS Trust or hospital.

Where there is a dispute as to the identity of the personal representatives, the person lawfully in possession of the body has the power to make arrangements for its disposal. The normal methods of disposal are burial or cremation, and in those circumstances the person in possession can decide on the appropriate method of disposal even against the wishes of other family members.

If no other appropriate arrangements have been made for the disposal, the local authority bears the burden of disposal under the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984.

Another practical problem often encountered in such circumstances is a question of how to deal with the contents of the tenanted property. The normal legal principles apply - in that the landlord becomes what is known as an "involuntary bailee" of the goods and cannot simply dispose of them straight away.

The safe option for landlords is to follow their normal procedures for dealing with property belonging to former occupants, but ensure that they also give due consideration to who may be entitled to the belongings under the will or the intestacy rules - and before taking any action, to take steps to identify and contact those persons accordingly.

If you would like advice on challenging a Will, or indeed on any other inheritance or trust dispute, please contact our Disputed Wills, Trusts and Estates Team by telephone on +44 (0)1884 203 018 or FREEPHONE 0800 0931336, or by email

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