Renters' Forum

A Host of Concerns Accompany Tenant's Mental Decline

By Robert Griswold, Steven R. Kellman and James McKinley
Saturday, November 3, 2007

Q: For several years, I have rented a home to an elderly woman in an area that's popular with active senior citizens. An ideal tenant, she was always early or on time with her rent payment.

But three months ago, her payment didn't arrive on the due date. When I contacted her, she said she had forgotten to mail the check. Another month went by, and she forgot again. This month, I called and she was disoriented and said she had been sick and would soon get the check in the mail.

I contacted her son, whose name was listed on the rental application and who lives out of town. He said that his mother had become forgetful and that he was concerned for her health and safety. He said he has tried to bring caregivers into the home but she has refused to answer the door. Last week, she was stopped by a local law enforcement officer and had been driving aimlessly around. He said he is trying to get power of attorney to act on her behalf.

In the interim, I'm concerned not only that she could be in need of more direct attention, but also that she might damage the house. She smokes, and I fear that a forgotten cigarette could start a fire. It's a sad situation. She's on a yearly lease. Do I have any standing to intervene?

A: Steven Kellman, a lawyer for tenants, replies:

It is difficult when a person becomes forgetful. Your concern is commendable. Your tenant's condition could be a temporary one, or it could get worse with time. The behavior you describe can be caused by certain forms of dementia, which could result from advanced age or medical processes, or perhaps from a progressively degenerative disease such as Alzheimer's.

In any event, it is difficult because being "forgetful" is a question of perception and there are degrees of forgetfulness. Even the most alert and competent adults can experience moments of absent-mindedness, which could mirror some of your tenant's symptoms.

The problem is that until she is declared legally incompetent, she is free to act as she deems fit. So she is entitled to be free from interference until it becomes clear that she is a danger to herself or others. If her son tried to help but had no success, then you will probably have an even more difficult time gaining her cooperation.

You can take the hard-line attitude and begin eviction proceedings based on the nonpayment of rent, or you can try to help with another approach. You can contact a local county social service agency such as adult protective services to have her situation evaluated.

The agency can intervene and assess her condition, competency and need for help. If the agency determines that she is well and competent enough to handle her own affairs but she persists in handling them poorly, you may be forced to take legal action to protect your property. If such action is commenced, her condition and need for assistance may become more evident and could prompt action on her behalf.

I am a property manager. A tenant signed a lease earlier this month that is set to begin on the first of next month. The tenant now indicates that he wishes to cancel the lease for vague reasons. He mentioned that his lawyer told him he could have trouble in his child-custody proceedings. Can he just back out of the lease?

James McKinley, a lawyer for landlords, replies:

Unless your tenant is in the military and being deployed, there is no valid reason for him to back out of the lease. Assuming that both parties signed the lease and that you gave the tenant a copy, you have formed a valid contract with him. So no, he cannot just back out of the lease.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold and San Diego lawyers Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants Legal Center, and James McKinley, member of the Moffitt & Associates law firm, which represents landlords. E-mail your questions to Griswold Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

Copyright 2007 Inman News Features

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