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 have to give the tenant before taking action.
Here are some answers to common questions about handling a tenant’s abandoned property in Montana.
If a tenant leaves property behind, can I dispose of it as I see fit or are there rules I must follow?
How much time does the tenant get to reclaim the abandoned property?
What should the notice say and how do I deliver it?
What are the rules about storing a tenant’s abandoned property?
I had to pay to store the tenant’s property. Will I be reimbursed for that?
Are there rules about selling the tenant’s property?
If I legally sell the tenant’s property, do I get to keep the proceeds?
When should I get a lawyer’s help?
Montana law states that you may not sell, give away, or throw out abandoned property until you give the tenant notice and wait for a specified period of time. This rule doesn’t apply to trash, perishable goods, or items that are clearly valueless -- such as old newspapers or food in the refrigerator -- which you may dispose of immediately. (See Montana Code § 70-24-430(a).)
If it’s clear that an item of property is leased or covered by a “rent to own” agreement and you can easily identify the individual or business that may have a right to the property, you must try to contact the potential owner before disposing of the item. (See Montana Code § 70-24-430(b).)
In Montana, you must give the tenant a notice that includes a deadline for reclaiming their property. The deadline must be at least ten days from the day that you mail or deliver the notice. For example, if you mail the notice on March 1, the deadline may be March 11 or later. (See Montana Code § 70-24-430(3).)
Be certain the tenancy is legally complete before you send the notice and start the clock on the waiting period. If you need information on the right steps to take to legally end a tenancy, see Evicting a Tenant or Ending a Lease on Nolo.com, read Montana’s landlord statutes (see below), or consult a qualified lawyer.
The law requires you to “make a reasonable attempt to notify the tenant in writing” that you intend to dispose of the abandoned property if they don’t respond before the deadline. You must send the notice with a certificate of mailing or by certified mail to the tenant’s last known address. (See Montana Code § 70-24-430(3).)
For more tips on preparing the notice -- such telling the tenant where to reclaim the property and including a description of the property and its estimated value -- see Handling a Tenant’s Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.
You must take inventory of the property and store it in a safe place, making sure to take reasonably good care of it. You won’t be liable for damage to the property unless you damage it on purpose or handle it negligently -- for example, by leaving a good sofa out in the rain. (See Montana Code § 70-24-430(2) and (6).)
If you take the tenant’s property to a commercial storage facility, you can charge the tenant for the actual costs of moving and storing the property. If you store the tenant’s belongings on your own property, you are allowed to charge a reasonable fee for that, too. The tenant must pay any storage and moving charges before reclaiming the property. If the tenant doesn’t pick up the property, you can use proceeds from selling the property to cover what the tenant owes you. (See below and Montana Code § 70-24-430(2), (5), and (8).)
You may sell the tenant’s abandoned property at a public or private sale if:
You aren’t required to sell every item. You can give away or toss out items that have little value, as long as you reasonably believe that the value of the property is so low that the cost of storing and selling the items would exceed what you could get for them at a sale. (See Montana Code § 70-24-430(4).)
As mentioned above, you can keep enough of the sale profits to cover your expenses. These costs can include:
After covering your costs, you must give any remaining sale proceeds to the tenant, along with an itemized accounting from the sale. If you can’t find the tenant, you must deposit the funds with the treasurer of the county where you held the sale. If the tenant doesn’t claim the money within three years, it will be turned over to the county government’s general fund. (See Montana Code § 70-24-430(8).)
If you think the abandoned property is very valuable or if you have any reason to believe the tenant may cause problems later, talk to a lawyer before you do anything other than carefully store the tenant’s possessions. It’s particularly important to get a lawyer’s advice if you have any questions about:
A good lawyer can help you protect yourself from claims that you have stolen or illegally destroyed a tenant’s property. You can search for an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in Montana using Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.
To read Montana’s landlord laws, see Chapter 24 of the Montana Code.
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).