Most states have laws governing what happens when a tenant moves out and leaves personal property behind. These laws may control matters such as how long you must wait before dealing with the property and what kind of notice, if any, you must give the tenant before taking action. Here are answers to common questions about handling a tenant’s abandoned property in Indiana.
If a tenant leaves property behind, can I dispose of it as I see fit or are there rules I must follow?
I know the tenant abandoned the rental unit and I don’t want to get a court order. What should I do with the tenant’s abandoned personal belongings?
When should I get a lawyer’s help?
In Indiana, what you must do depends on how the tenancy ended.
Planned moves. If a tenant moves out at the end of a lease and returns the key, Indiana law is not clear about what you must do with property left behind. You aren’t responsible for loss or damage to the tenant’s personal property if the belongings are abandoned. But it can be tricky to figure out whether personal items are truly and legally abandoned; it depends on whether a “reasonable person would conclude that the tenant has vacated the premises and has surrendered possession of the personal property.” (Indiana Code § 32-31-4-2.)
If the items are clearly garbage, you can throw them out. For other belongings, the common sense approach is to contact the tenant and try to return the property, especially if you believe the tenant accidentally left something of value. If it costs you anything to remove the tenant’s property, you can withhold the cost of doing so from the security deposit. (See Indiana Security Deposits and Deadlines for more information.)
If you have questions about getting rid of a tenant’s property in this situation, it’s wise to consult a lawyer (see below).
Evictions. You must take specific steps to deal with a tenant’s abandoned property after winning an eviction lawsuit. To learn the rules, see Handling a Tenant’s Property in Indiana: After an Eviction.
Unannounced departures. If you believe a tenant has abandoned a rental unit, most professionals suggest that you wait until rent is past due, then file an eviction lawsuit for nonpayment of rent. After you have a court order, you can dispose of the tenant’s belongings without worry, following the rules for evictions.
If you don’t get a court order giving you possession of the rental property and allowing you to dispose of the tenant’s property, it’s best to be careful when dealing with belongings left behind:
For additional guidance on preparing a letter for the tenant, see Handling a Tenant’s Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.
A qualified lawyer can help you find and understand any rules that apply to your situation. It’s a particularly good idea to consult a lawyer if:
A good lawyer can help you protect yourself from claims that you have stolen or improperly destroyed a tenant’s property. You can search for an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in Indiana using Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.
You can find Indiana’s Landlord-Tenant statutes in Title 32, Article 31 of the Indiana Code.
For more information about your rights and responsibilities as a landlord, see the Landlords section of Nolo.com, including the article Top 8 Landlord Legal Responsibilities in Indiana.
If you want a comprehensive legal and practical handbook for residential landlords, check out Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart, Ralph Warner, and Janet Portman (Nolo).