Most states have laws governing what happens when a tenant moves out and leaves personal property behind. These laws might 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 Alabama.
When a tenant leaves property behind, can I dispose of it as I see fit or are there rules I must follow?
When a tenant owes me money, can I take and sell the tenant's property to cover the amount due?
Do I need to notify the tenant before disposing of abandoned property?
When should I get a lawyer's help?
In Alabama, the rule for dealing with abandoned property is straightforward. If a tenant leaves property behind for more than 14 days after a rental agreement ends, you can dispose of it however you like—for example, by selling it, giving it away, or tossing it out. (Alabama Code § 35-9A-423(d).)
This rule applies no matter what the circumstances of the tenant's departure. In other words, it makes no difference whether the tenant plans to move and gives proper notice, is physically evicted, or simply disappears. What does matter is that you know the rental agreement is legally complete before you start the 14-day clock.
For more information on the right steps to take to legally end a tenancy, see Evicting a Tenant or Ending a Lease on Nolo.com, read Alabama's landlord statutes (see below), or consult a qualified lawyer.
As discussed above, you are free to sell a tenant's legally abandoned property after 14 days. If the tenant's property has not been abandoned, Alabama law forbids you from seizing it to cover back rent or other debts a tenant owes you. (Alabama Code § 35-9A-425.)
While Alabama law requires you to give notice to terminate a tenancy, there is no special notice requirement for dealing with abandoned property. That said, it's good business practice to provide notice before disposing of a tenant's belongings.
For suggestions on what to include in the notice—such as a description of the property, its estimated value, and a deadline for reclaiming it—see Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.
If you think the abandoned property is very valuable or if you have any reason to believe the tenant might 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 whether the tenancy has been properly terminated or whether the property is truly abandoned.
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 Alabama using Nolo's Lawyer Directory.
To read Alabama's landlord laws, see Chapter 9A of the Alabama Code.
For more information about your rights and responsibilities as a landlord, see the Landlords & Tenants section of Nolo.com.
If you want a comprehensive legal and practical handbook for residential landlords, check out Every Landlord's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman, Marcia Stewart, and Ann O'Connell (Nolo).