By:  Susan M. Marra

Landlords have frequently been faced with the question of what to do with a tenant’s property when the tenant has been evicted or disappears leaving his or her possessions behind. In New Jersey, the Abandoned Tenant Property statute permits a landlord of commercial or residential property to dispose of tangible goods, chattels, manufactured or mobile homes or other personal property left upon a premises by a tenant under certain circumstances. The landlord must reasonably believe that the tenant has no intent to reclaim his property, and either a warrant for removal must have been executed and the landlord gained possession, or the tenant must have given written notice that he is voluntarily giving up possession of the premises. The Act is not applicable to abandoned motor vehicles, or to the disposal of tenant property left on non-residential rental property if there is a lease in effect which contains specific terms and conditions for the disposal of tenant property. Specific provisions, not discussed in this article apply to motor homes.

If the Act applies, the landlord must first give written notice to the tenant stating that the property will be considered abandoned and must be removed from the premises or from the place of safekeeping (if the landlord has stored the property) not less than the earlier of (i) thirty days after delivery of the landlord’s notice and (ii) thirty-three days after the date of mailing of the notice.

The notice must also state that if the abandoned property is not removed, landlord may sell the property at public or private sale; or landlord may destroy or otherwise dispose of the property if the landlord reasonably determines that the value of the property is so low that the cost of storage and conducting the sale would exceed the amount that would be realized from the sale; or Landlord may sell items of value and destroy or otherwise dispose of the remaining property.

In the case of a residential tenant, the notice must state that if the tenant claims the property within the time period provided in the notice, the landlord will make the property available for removal by the tenant without payment by tenant of any unpaid rent.

After properly notifying the tenant, a landlord must store the property of the tenant in a place of safekeeping and exercise reasonable care for the property. The landlord may immediately dispose of perishable food and allow animal control agents or the Humane Society to remove any abandoned pets.

If on or before the date specified in the required notice the tenant responds to the landlord that the tenant intends to remove the property, and does not do so within the time specified in the notice or within fifteen days after the written response, whichever is later, tenant’s property is presumed abandoned. Tenant’s property is also presumed abandoned if no response is received from the tenant within the time period provided above.

In most instances, a landlord may deduct from the proceeds of any sale the reasonable cost of notice, storage, and sale and any unpaid rent and other charges. After deducting these amounts, the landlord must remit the remaining proceeds, if any, to the tenant together with an itemized accounting. If the tenant, after due diligence, cannot be found, the remaining proceeds must be deposited with the Superior Court and, if not claimed within ten years, escheats to the State.

Although complying with the Abandoned Tenant Property statute is time-consuming, it offers the landlord a complete defense in any action brought by a tenant against a landlord for loss or damage to personal property as long as the landlord complies in good faith with all of the requirements of the Act. If a landlord seizes and retains a tenant’s personal property without complying with this Act, the tenant is relieved of any liability for reimbursement to the landlord for storage and removal costs and is entitled to recover up to twice the actual damages sustained by the tenant. Therefore, a landlord should contact legal counsel so that compliance with the Act is assured.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The reader should consult legal counsel to determine how the law may apply to specific situations.