Real estate Q&A: Can a landlord throw away personal documents left behind by a tenant?

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Q: I have had tenants move out and leave behind tax returns, driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and other private documents. Do I need to do something special, or can I just throw it away? If someone takes it from the trash, will I have any responsibility, or is it the tenant’s fault for leaving it behind? — Michael

A: Over the years, I have had landlords tell me of some outrageous things that tenants left behind after moving out!

When cleaning out a rental after the tenant has left or been evicted, a landlord can throw away any items of junk. Food wrappers, empty bottles, rags, old newspapers and the like can be safely disposed of.

If the property left behind is worth less than a certain amount, such as $500, a different procedure must be followed. You will need to attempt to notify the departed tenant and tell them what you found, where you found it and where you are storing it. You must also inform them that if they do not timely claim the abandoned property, it will be sold or disposed of.

If the property is worth more than the threshold, there is a more complicated procedure involving publishing notice in the newspaper and auctioning the property if it is not claimed. You will be reimbursed for the expense of the process and the remaining proceeds will be held by the government for the tenant to claim later.

Paperwork left behind creates a bit of a puzzle to solve and can leave you in a bad spot.

The papers themselves have little intrinsic value but may be damaging to your tenant if just thrown in the trash. Some paperwork can be costly or impossible to replace later.

Your best bet would be to keep the papers safe and do your best to contact the tenant to retrieve their documents.

After a reasonably long time passes, you should destroy the unclaimed paperwork rather than just throwing it away.

Like any legal matter, the rules and monetary requirements can vary from depending on where you live, so make sure to check the law and follow it carefully to avoid any issues.



Gary M. Singer is a Florida attorney and board-certified as an expert in real estate law by the Florida Bar. He practices real estate, business litigation and contract law from his office in Sunrise, Fla. He is the chairman of the Real Estate Section of the Broward County Bar Association and is a co-host of the weekly radio show Legal News and Review. He frequently consults on general real estate matters and trends in Florida with various companies across the nation. Send him questions online at or follow him on Twitter @GarySingerLaw.


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