By Ronda Kaysen
The New York Times
Q: My brother died last week, probably from Covid-19. The management company of his Manhattan rental building told me that the family usually has 14 days to empty the apartment, but they would check if anything has changed because of the pandemic. I can’t possibly meet that deadline because I am 79, live in Connecticut and have a medical condition. There is no way that I can risk going to New York City to clear out the apartment and I am reluctant to put anyone else at risk right now. What rights do I have?
A: Your brother’s landlord cannot arbitrarily take possession of his apartment or his belongings, whether or not we’re in the middle of a health emergency.
“They don’t have a legal right to go into the apartment,” said Jonathan Fox, the director of the Tenants’ Rights Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group. “A tenant, and their estate after they die, has lawful possession of the apartment until there is a judgment in housing court and a warrant executed by a marshal.”
Under the law, if your brother passed away and no one cleaned out the apartment and surrendered the keys, the landlord would have to wait three months and then begin an eviction proceeding against the estate in housing court, according to Andrew Scherer, the policy director of the Impact Center for Public Interest Law at New York Law School, where he is a visiting associate professor. (If your brother did not leave a will, the landlord would also have to sue to name a legal representative for the estate.)
Currently, the landlord can’t even start the process because the courts are closed except for emergency cases, and evictions are not considered emergencies. Moreover, a statewide moratorium on evictions is in place until at least mid-June.
So you don’t have to rush to clear out his belongings, nor should you make any unnecessary travel plans. Call the management company and tell them to leave your brother’s belongings and his apartment alone. If they continue to pressure you, contact a lawyer to write a letter on your behalf. If they attempt to enter the apartment, call the police.
Originally published in The New York Times on May 11, 2020.