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.
In Wisconsin, what you must do depends on whether or not the tenancy was covered by a rental agreement that included a specific notice about abandoned property.
If your tenant signed a rental agreement stating that you will not store property the tenant leaves behind, there's very little you need to do. As soon as the rental term ends, you can dispose of the abandoned property however you like – for example, by selling it, giving it away, or throwing it out.
There are two exceptions to this rule:
Medical items. You must keep prescription medications or prescription medical equipment for at least seven days after you find them, in case the tenant returns to claim them. After seven days, you may dispose of the medical items.
Mobile homes, manufactured homes, or titled vehicles. You must give the tenant -- or anyone else you know of who has a legal interest in the vehicle -- written notice that you intend to dispose of the home or vehicle. You should deliver the notice personally or by mail to the tenant's last known address.
If you sell the tenant's abandoned property, Wisconsin law provides that you may send the proceeds to the Wisconsin Department of Administration to be used for grants to homeless shelters -- but the law does not require you to do so.
For more information about the requirements above, read Wisconsin Statutes § 704.05(5).
If the tenant didn't sign a rental agreement covering abandoned property, you must follow the rules set out in an older Wisconsin law. (See Wisconsin Statutes § 704.05(5)(bf).) Under that law, you may take any of the following actions:
(See the archived version of Wisconsin Statutes § 704.05(5), which applies when you don't give notice in a rental agreement.)
Be certain the tenancy is legally complete before you send the tenant a notice about abandoned property. 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 Wisconsin's landlord statutes (see below), or consult a qualified lawyer.
For more tips on preparing a notice for the tenant, see Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.
Finally, consider updating your lease or rental agreement to cover abandoned property, so you can take advantage of Wisconsin's more flexible laws in the future. For general tips on crafting a smart lease or rental agreement, see The Basics of Leases and Rental Agreements on Nolo.com. For sample language providing notice about abandoned property, see the blog of Milwaukee lawyer Tristan R. Pettit.
If you think the tenant's 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 whether a tenancy has been properly terminated or which set of Wisconsin laws you must follow.
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 Wisconsin using Nolo's Lawyer Directory.
To read Wisconsin's landlord laws, see Chapter 704 of the Wisconsin Statutes.
For more information about your rights and responsibilities as a landlord, see the Landlords section of Nolo.com, including the article Top 1o Landlord Legal Responsibilities in Wisconsin.
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).
Need a lawyer? Start here.