Dealing with the Family
December 6, 2008 5:23 AM   Subscribe

How can a NYC girl survive the death of her roommate?

My friend and her roommate (and ex) both have physical disabilities; he is bed bound, she is in a chair. She paid the rent, he paid for everything else. Money is not plentiful. He lived in the bedroom, and she lived in the living room. They broke up not because they stopped caring about each other, but because of family pressure. They have known each other for 15 years.

A few days ago, she called 911 when she saw he was in distress, and she called his family to tell them what was going on. By the end of the day, he was dead. She is devastated. His funeral was on Thursday.

His family has been coming into the apartment pretending she is not there. They are slowly cleaning out the apartment of everything they consider his, including some things that are not. A friend of hers flew in to NYC to help, and has been moving things that are his into the bedroom to make things easier.

Last night, police had to be called because they arrived at 10pm and started accusing her of theft, as things (like pieces of flatware) were "missing". They are angry that his things have been "moved without their permission". It took the police to get them to leave at 3:30am. They will be back today at 9am.

She would like to get on with her life. Currently, his stuff is still in the bedroom, and the family seems to want to take its time removing it, going through everything straw by straw. They arrive at the apartment at whatever time suits them, without considering her at all. She is feeling trapped and scared.

What's the best solution to this situation? Does she have any legal rights? She have no desire whatsoever to take any of his stuff, and hasn't said a word about them absconding some of her things. She just wants to get on with her life.

Not a lot of time has passed, but a lot of nastiness has already occurred. What's a reasonable solution? She doesn't have much of a support network, and the folks who have flown in to help will have to fly back home again soon. Recommendations?
posted by Hildegarde to Law & Government (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Call a disability-rights organization to see if they can arrange for an advocate. If I wasn't on a Blackberry I'd get some links for you.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:32 AM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

She pays the rent, she's the legal resident of the apartment -- she doesn't even have to let them in the door.

She should explain that she'll give them a schedule convenient to her detailing when they may remove items, and that if they don't play by her rules, she'll simply bar them from the building and have his possessions removed to the sidewalk at her convenience.
posted by orthogonality at 5:35 AM on December 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: The police said she couldn't change the locks, so we're presuming there's some legal reason why they have every right to barge in the door. Not so?
posted by Hildegarde at 5:37 AM on December 6, 2008

Presumably, because the deceased was a resident too. I not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice, but no, his next-of-kin aren't on the lease, and no, I don't see why they have any right to barge in.

Certainly not at any time they please, and into the small hours of the night,

But, as ever, "get a lawyer".
posted by orthogonality at 5:46 AM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: This is interesting.
posted by orthogonality at 5:51 AM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Very interesting indeed. Thanks tons, that helps. Even if it just lets them feel slightly less helpless.
posted by Hildegarde at 5:56 AM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: There has to be specific reason, i.e. law, why she cant' change locks and they need to cite it.

I am not a lawyer though, and she needs to get in touch with a lawyer to fully understand her rights in this situation because it sounds like she's being bullied. Googling "legal aid New York" brings up many possibilities. She should start contacting people today because this is beyond disgusting and totally wrong.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:58 AM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: hildegard, that's so sad. Sorry for that pain.

I don't know the specifics, but the general gist of tenant law is that it doesn't matter who is on the lease or who pays the rent, if someone lives somewhere, someone else can't just kick them out, or change the locks, without going through the court system. This is a pain in the neck in a lot of situations, but is essential to protecting a lot of people.

Your friend should get somebody to help her, first of all. Move everything that is undeniably the deceased person's into his room, everything that isn't out of it. His family can take the stuff in the room, and can't touch what isn't. She should probably schedule time for the family to come over when she isn't around, and have her helper there to act as traffic cop. After they get the stuff out, then they can quibble over other stuff.
posted by gjc at 5:59 AM on December 6, 2008

Also, for this thread, it would probably help if you could relate specifics, such as where both names on the lease? does she have records of who paid what bills? records of who owned what?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:59 AM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: As I understand it, only her name is on the lease. I believe he paid other bills, though. The things they are taking are small, like stacks of paper plates, cutlery and food. They don't have much.
posted by Hildegarde at 6:03 AM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: I wish I could offer legal or on-the-spot physical help.

However if your friend needs financial help to replace those paper plates (!) I'll be delighted to contribute cash to make that possible.
posted by firstdrop at 6:48 AM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: Good idea, firstdrop!

At your suggestion, we put a page together here. Thanks for your support. Our hearts are breaking for her, and we appreciate any support we can get.
posted by Hildegarde at 6:54 AM on December 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: While gjc is right that a resident in a New York City apartment cannot be barred from his or her apartment without going to court (New York is strictly a no self-help jurisdiction), it's not clear that those rights extend to family members who have not yet been established to be the estate of a deceased roommate (just because they're related doesn't mean they're the legal estate -- they would likely have to go to Surrogates Court to establish that). Did you ask the police why they felt that the locks could not be changed in this situation? That might be a good place to start. You can certainly also try to consult a lawyer, although this will probably not be possible over the weekend. On Monday you can try calling the Legal Services NYC office in your borough -- at the minimum, you should be able to get some advice through the housing hotline.

In the interim, the family members should not be permitted to take things that did not belong to their deceased relative. If necessary, you and her other friends should be available to supervise the removal of items, and if there's a dispute over ownership of a particular item, the cops should be called back to the apartment. If the family truly feels that you're withholding items that belonged to their deceased relative, they have a variety of legal options they can pursue on Monday to regain those items. If the situation escalates, the cops will probably tell you to consider a criminal order of protection. Obviously, since his family is probably grieving, you'd rather not let it get to this point, but your roommate should be protected and permitted to enjoy her apartment in peace.

None of this is legal advice.
posted by lassie at 8:22 AM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are the family members paying his portion of the rent? If not, they have no legal attachment to the apartment.

The police said she couldn't change the locks

The police say a lot of things. Frequently these things are wrong. The only person who's opinion on the issue matters at all is a judge, not Mr. Know-it-All-in-Blue.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:23 AM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is she employed? If she has employment income it's likely that she will need to seek legal counsel through a disabilities advocacy agency because the income guidelines for legal aid services are generally very strict. If her income comes from SSDI she'll probably have a better chance of getting legal aid, but some people get pretty substantial SSDI payments that would also likely disqualify them. Regardless, the legal aid group should be able to tell you who she can turn to for legal assistance in the disability advocacy community even if she isn't appropriate for assistance from legal aid.
posted by The Straightener at 10:01 AM on December 6, 2008

It would be worth calling the various NYC law school clinics. While they have budgets to deal with just like legal aid offices, their labor costs are pretty cheap or free and they typically will have more flexibility to take on a client or, if you can get an instructor/professor with experience in the area, just hash out some rough facts on the phone.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:39 AM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: She'd like me to add that she is on the lease, and these other folks have power of attorney.
posted by Hildegarde at 10:57 AM on December 6, 2008

It might be worth contacting the landlord, to whom rent is presumably paid on time each month, and asking if the locks can be changed for safety reasons, as the current tenant is concerned about existing keys to that lock, which are no longer in the possession of the deceased resident. No other explanation - just that.

Do that in writing and watch that locksmith show up about an hour after the landlord gets the letter. No landlord wants to accept liability for theft or other harm to the tenant; no responsible landlord will neglect such a letter.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:07 AM on December 6, 2008

Go to, put in her zip code, and call every place that comes up under the Housing and Disability tabs. Some places have more flexible income guidelines that others.

And the police aren't lawyers. Did she show her lease to the police? Police in NYC are instructed that changing the locks to evict someone is illegal, so it sounds like they are being very cautious. She might try going to the precinct and talking to someone there about the situation when things are less volatile than a bunch of angry/scared people in an apartment dealing with patrol cops. If her mobility impairment would make this difficult, she could try to get someone from the precinct to come see her when the family isn't there.

Even though the family has power of attorney, I suspect that doesn't grant them the right to come in whenever they want to and take whatever they want. If the family is taking things that are hers, file a complaint for theft and harassment.

Also call her city council person. People don't think of doing this, but some of the constituent services people have been very helpful to people I know.
posted by Mavri at 2:34 PM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: Any disability-rights organization would know of a network of lawyers. Sounds like what she needs is both a social services caseworker and an advocate. Another possible source of help might be a religious program for any well-established religious group. If she s religious. A lawyer should seek to determine if there is any commonly-held property as well. Also, the impact of the loss of the income to the household will need to be assessed. Depending on circumstances, she may need to be relocated.

But most importantly, she needs exactly what has been given, which is a hand from you. Your concern is already helping her. Your best help will consist of guidance to resources designed to serve the populations of which she is a member, be they religious, ethnic or social services.

Finally, I'm going to suggest something radical. I would suggest that someone, a friend or a family member contact the family of her roommate. I would tell them that you are interested in helping all parties get through this difficult transition. Ask if they would help your friend equally. Although you may meet with rejection, you may find that a new approach emphasizing those goals may make them aware of other considerations which are so hard to see when a family is dealing with a death.

Although I am an attorney, I am not licensed in your jurisdiction and this is not legal advice.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:43 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

and these other folks have power of attorney.

Not if he's dead, they don't. Now it's just a piece of paper.
posted by dhartung at 1:02 AM on December 7, 2008

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