No matter how much you plead, no reputable self-storage business is likely to just hand over access to your deceased mother's storage unit. That's because legally, in many ways, a deceased tenant is still a tenant.

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You may not even have known that a loved one had a storage unit until that person died and started receiving past-due notices in the mail. However, if you just show up in a moving truck to retrieve the person's belongings, you won't be able to gain access by simply explaining the circumstances.

"We've had people bring in divorce decrees, marriage licenses and even one person who brought in a picture of the dead person in a casket," says M. Anne Ballard, president of marketing and training development services at Universal Storage Group. "None of that worked."

If you don't have a key or the gate code to get into the storage unit, you'll need to provide a copy of your credentials to manage the estate, designating you as someone who's allowed access, says Ballard. "Even though the person is deceased, their rights aren't deceased," she says. "The court has to decide who gets the property or whose stuff it is."

Once someone is deceased, the unit's contents belong to the estate, says Scott Zucker, an attorney specializing in self-storage. However, if an estate executor has the gate code and key or combination to the storage unit, that person is allowed access if the rent is paid up, the tenant is not otherwise locked out, and there are no competing claims for access.If you don't have the key or code, then you have two options to gain access, says Zucker:

  • Obtain a letter of administration from the county probate court that has jurisdiction over the deceased tenant’s estate. That, plus a death certificate, should grant you access to the unit.
  • If the deceased tenant had no estate and there was no will, the family can have a small estate affidavit prepared. You can provide the affidavit to a self-storage operator to obtain access to the property, since the probate court won't be involved.

Even if you're listed on the storage lease as having authorized access, the facility still doesn't have to let you in if you don't have a key or the gate code.

"Often, the family has to go through the probate and estate process to deal with a deceased tenant’s house, car and other assets," says Zucker. "If they have to go through the process anyway, they can just add the tenant’s self-storage unit to the list."

Meanwhile, make sure you keep paying the rent on the storage unit. Otherwise, the facility can place a lien on the unit, and foreclose and auction off your loved one's belongings.

The storage facility has to follow legal requirements to provide notice before foreclosure and auction, a process that varies in length and procedures, depending on state law. You can look up your state's lien laws at the Self Storage Association.

"As long as the unit is occupied, the landlord is entitled to be paid for rent," says Zucker.

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This story was contributed by SpareFoot, the largest marketplace for storage. SpareFoot makes it simpler to move and store your stuff by providing storage options 

At Wayforth we work with families in transition. We can empty an entire house within days, sorting what items to keep, sell, donate, and discard. Our employees pack and move everything, then prepare the house for sale. Call us for a free consultation.

Our advice is based on our experience cleaning out and settling estates for our clients. Each project is different, and each state's laws are different. We always recommend that you consult personally with experts about your particular situation before making any important decisions.