Legally speaking, what do I do with this mail?
August 17, 2023 6:04 AM   Subscribe

We had some mail for long-ago previous occupants. I wrote "not at this address" and put it back out for USPS, but....

So for some reason we get periodic mail for the now-deceased former owner of the house and for a former resident from fifteen or twenty years ago. I realized that I had some that was several months old plus some new envelopes, marked it "not at this address" and put it propped up on the mailbox.

When I went down to get the mail, there was a note on one of the envelopes to "put your name on the mailbox, we are not mind readers" but all the envelopes were still there. I freely admit, I've never put names on the mailbox - we do get some mail for a friend who is traveling, for instance, and I just kind of don't like having names on our mailbox. We get random people on our porch a lot, there was just an anti-trans hate crime nearby, etc.

But anyway! I would never get upset at the post office for delivering mail that literally had our address on it. However, my belief in the past was that the post office was supposed to take away this kind of mail when you marked it "not at this address". Since they don't seem to want it, and at least one piece is real official mail for someone who is probably alive, what do I do with it? Can I shred it?

I imagine that there's no real harm in shredding the ones for the deceased former owner, but what about other mail? As far as I know it's illegal to tamper with others' mail.
posted by Frowner to Law & Government (43 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I am of the opinion that, if you have been at this address for some time, if the former resident's mail mysteriously disappeared from the Earth after being dropped in your mailbox, and if by some miracle some person came looking for it and you shrugged and said you have no idea where it went, the world will continue spinning without a care. Tampering with mail generally means maliciously, you're being entrusted with something that you don't know where it goes and you're doing your best with it, that's not tampering.

As for your technique so far: I believe the mailperson interpreted your leaving the mail right there for them to see, with your note, as a message for them directly which is why they felt the need to respond. Next time, drop it off at any other mailbox than your own. The USPS does not actually make any decisions on whether to deliver mail to a particular address (other than if the mailperson makes a determination at delivery that it is incorrectly addressed) so it gets returned to the source, who gets to decide whether they keep sending letters to this address or not. Like, the USPS doesn't take your note and add it to a 'this person moved but we don't know where' database. This means that there's not a lot you can really do about this arriving in your mailbox, so I point you back to my first paragraph.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:14 AM on August 17 [8 favorites]

Try writing RTS on it instead. (Return to Sender)
posted by XtineHutch at 6:21 AM on August 17 [13 favorites]

You have a sassy mail person! You don't have to have your name on the box. Since they're asking for help though, you might put your name on the inside of the box so they can see it.

I'd bring the not-for-you mail to the post office and explain that it needs to be returned to sender. Or, if I was feeling sassy right back, after putting my name inside the mailbox I'd leave a little happy note on their note that they can take this mail now ;)

May backfire or may make you a friend, hard to say!

Just don't shred mail that's not for you. Not opening other people's mail is a really easy law to follow. I've definitely totally neeeever thrown out "please give us money" college mail for previous homeowners.
But seriously, best not to mess with the mail
posted by Baethan at 6:23 AM on August 17 [6 favorites]

I live in Chicago where our mail service is famously dicey, and I have had 9 different addresses here. The ONLY effective method I have found is to collect up a stack of wrong mail and physically take it into my local PO. Wait patiently, go up to the desk, and then patiently, piece by piece, addressee by addressee, have them do their computer thing one by one to formally decree that it's no longer a valid addressee.

Nothing else works. Writing a secret combination of special runes on the envelope does. not. work.
posted by phunniemee at 6:25 AM on August 17 [13 favorites]

Avoid sassing your mail carrier. This is not a person you want to develop an adversarial relationship with.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:25 AM on August 17 [40 favorites]

After you write the note on the envelope (not at this address, etc) drop it in a mailbox on the street. Don't leave it in your mailbox. The post office will take of it, but your personal letter carrier won't have to deal with it.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:32 AM on August 17 [8 favorites]

The special runes are REFUSED. Your particular mileage may vary.

Refuse unwanted mail and remove name from mailing lists
The United States Postal Service® will deliver the mail as addressed, but it does not have to be accepted.

Without a specific reason to the contrary, mail sent to an address will be delivered.

Mail is delivered to residential or business addresses even if the name on the mailpiece is different than the known residents.

If a person alleging to be the addressee of certain mail item is unknown to the delivery employee, the mail may be withheld pending valid photo ID of the claimant.

An addressee may request the postmaster, in writing, to withhold from delivery (for a period not to exceed 2 years) any foreign letter or publication material with a specified name or address on the outside.
Not everyone accepts every piece of mail that is delivered to their home, whether it is unsolicited advertising or other pieces. When that happens, Postal standards offer mail refusal options.

Domestic Mail Manual (DMM), Sect. 604.8.1.2 and Sect. 507.1.8.2 provide two instances where mail can be refused when it is offered for delivery, or, after delivery. You may mark “Refused” and return it unopened within a reasonable time.

If a mailpiece has been opened, even if it is been resealed, it CANNOT be marked “Refused” and returned. If someone wants to return that mailpiece to the sender, they have to put it in a new envelope or wrapper with a correct address and new postage.

There is some mail that CANNOT be refused after it has been delivered. Once again, two groups fit this category:

Pieces sent as Registered Mail, Insured, Certified Mail, and Collect on Delivery (COD). Postage must be paid by the customer for this mail to be returned.
Response mail to a sales promotion, solicitation, announcement, or other advertisement that was not refused when offered to the recipient.
posted by zamboni at 6:45 AM on August 17 [2 favorites]

Avoid sassing your mail carrier.

Just to clarify, definitely sass your mail carrier
(if your local culture appreciates a bit of friendly sass. Sassy people tend to appreciate a little gentle sass right back: shows it's been received the right way and without offense. Might be helped along by snacks... again, depending on local culture. The goal is to be friends because yes, they are in charge of your mail. If you don't tip at holidays or do not know how to sass properly, do not sass.)
posted by Baethan at 6:58 AM on August 17 [3 favorites]

I live in a rental that has had many residents over the years. If the mail looks important, I simply write "addressee not at this address" on it and drop it in the outgoing mail slot. If it doesn't look important (which is 98% of it), it goes into the recycling bin.
posted by COD at 6:59 AM on August 17 [1 favorite]

We’ve been in our home for 7 years. In the last year, I’ve started just throwing away mail for precious occupants.
posted by samthemander at 7:04 AM on August 17 [1 favorite]

Minnesota doesn't have a local culture that appreciates sass and the city of Minneapolis has a shortage of mail carriers.

Can you replace your mailbox with one that has a fliptop and put your names on the inside of the lid? I'd include the friend's name as well. When I lived in apartments in Mpls, the mail carriers required names on boxes before they would deliver anything at all. I realize you are in a house, but this would be helpful for them. I would toss things that come for deceased people and RTS/refuse things for anyone else.
posted by soelo at 7:08 AM on August 17 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have no objection to dropping the mail in a mailbox - if that's the done thing, I don't need to make more work for the mail carrier.

Mixed feelings about any kind of name on the mailbox, but I'll consider it. Our mailbox is in markedly bad shape, so replacing it with a better, lidded one wouldn't be the end of the world.

In the past, I had returned mail (and grew up believing that this was how you returned mail) just by writing "not at this address". I assume that with more mail carriers and/or a lower volume of returned mail, the carriers must just have figured that they would deal with it.
posted by Frowner at 7:21 AM on August 17 [1 favorite]

Reporting / returning misdelivered mail

Despite our best efforts, occasionally mail is misdelivered, or is delivered to an old location for an individual. If you are receiving mail for the previous resident and do not know their address, simply return the mail piece back to the mailstream (by leaving in a Collection Box or other mail receptacle) with the notation "Not at this address" marked on the envelope.

-- per the USPS

You weren't wrong, that's literally how you're supposed to do it. Your mailbox counts as a mail receptacle.
posted by Baethan at 7:31 AM on August 17 [10 favorites]

After you write the note on the envelope (not at this address, etc) drop it in a mailbox on the street. Don't leave it in your mailbox. The post office will take of it, but your personal letter carrier won't have to deal with it.

This has never worked in my experience. We have a blue street mailbox around the corner; I've taken similar mail to that box with "NOT AT THIS ADDRESS" and "RETURN TO SENDER" scribbled all over it and it STILL makes its way back to our home. Multiple times. Now I just chuck it in the recycling.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:32 AM on August 17 [4 favorites]

I cross out my address, circle the return address and label “Return to Sender - not at this address “
And pop it into a curbside or post office mailbox.
posted by calgirl at 7:36 AM on August 17 [2 favorites]

Putting it back out for the mail carrier with "NOT AT THIS ADDRESS" scrawled on it has always worked for me at my house.

A while back I was in a rental house and the carrier there was weird. There were a couple of odd incidents; the one that sticks in my mind is, I had put a fake name on something (like a subscription or purchase) because I wanted to keep track of what the vendor did with the data and see where else that fake name would wind up. When the thing arrived she didn't deliver it; I happened to intercept her, and she gave me a whole song and dance about how she didn't think a person named Fifinella von Bortholle actually lived at this address, etc. etc.

Mail carriers are human, I guess some of them have their own ideas about how to do things. I think your carrier was out of line.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:38 AM on August 17 [4 favorites]

Mail carrier was having a day, The suggestion to put your name inside the mailbox is a good one.

Leave the mail carriers treats; I have to leave cookies on successive days because they have weird schedules. My mail carriers are generally terrific.
posted by theora55 at 7:44 AM on August 17 [1 favorite]

In DC I tried writing not at this address on the mail and putting it in the public mailbox, but it came back to me. Then I completely scribbled out my address and all the barcodes on the envelope, and it didn't come back. I don't know where it went, but it didn't come back to me.

I also got my landlord's permission to open any mail addressed to her after a missed warning from the city resulted in a fine for the basement apartment.
posted by catquas at 8:07 AM on August 17

So one is dead and the other hasn't lived at this address for over a decade? It's totally morally ok to just toss their mail in the recycling bin IMHO.
posted by splitpeasoup at 8:11 AM on August 17 [4 favorites]

As others have said above, we have our names inside our mailbox.

If I get mail for others, I check it. Junky mail gets junked. Other stuff gets marked "Return to Sender, Not at this address", and dropped off in a blue mailbox or at the post office. If the addressee is dead, I will mark it "Addressee deceased. Return to sender. Please remove from all mailing lists." I also cross off my address on the envelope with a Sharpie and circle the return address and put a big arrow pointing to it, i.e. return it to that address. I get enough mail not to want to deal with other long ago residents' mail. My end goal is not to keep getting this stuff and having to toss it or deal with it in any way.

We don't seem to have a regular letter carrier at the moment, but rather a rotating group, some of whom are more reliable than others, so I don't think it is worth trying to get them to deal with it; I just use the post office mostly, which fortunately for me is only a few blocks away.
posted by gudrun at 8:36 AM on August 17

Yeah, you did the right thing. But something has happened with letter carriers recently. At my old house, my letter carrier refused to pick up any outgoing mail. If we wanted to mail our rent check (we had an old school landlord who only accepted checks), we couldn't leave it for him; we had to take it to a mailbox or to the post office itself. Tremendously inconvenient, especially during early Covid when it wasn't clear what was safe. I asked my dad, who spent his entire career at USPS, about it, and he said that the official rule is that letter carriers are authorized to use their discretion when delivering and picking up mail - they can refuse service to a house with unplowed sidewalks, or with a vicious-looking dog, and some letter carriers are famous for having, um, more discretion than others. If it really bothers you, you can call your local postmaster and complain. Otherwise, what everyone else is saying applies - just take it to a drop box somewhere.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:38 AM on August 17 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify, definitely sass your mail carrier

For fuck sake do not do this. That last thing you want is a carrier that follows all the rules to the letter (zing!). Go to. the /r/USPS subreddit, see how close to a breaking point your carrier certainly is, and ask yourself if you want that person responsible for ensuring you get that court summons/tax return/birthday card/etc in a timely matter hating your guts (for good reason!).

Does Amazon/UPS/your neighbor/etc every put anything your mailbox? Not any more they don't. That's a federal crime, and they are welcome to respond to the summons and go face their punishment and receive their fine by contacting their local postal inspector. Unless it's raining, and in that case there might not be a fine, but there will be packages and whatnot in the largest puddle. Removing non-USPS delivered items from your mailbox (even if you put them there yourself) and placing them on the ground is 100% within the rights of your carrier.

Waiting for that Sunday Amazon delivery? Oops, there was a dog roaming the street, and it was not safe to get out of the LLV. Maybe Amazon will come get your package from the PO (lol) and deliver it themselves sometime this week.

Anyway, at least one day a week a carrier that doesn't have your route puts mail in your box. It's possible they have never delivered mail to you before. Put your name inside your box (so they can see it when they open it) and that will cut down on mis-deliveries. For everything else, cross out your address, but "No Such Person At this Address", and put it in the outgoing mail.

Or, just shred it. At my current place, I gave the former owners a year, and now everything that isn't an actual legal document gets shredded.
posted by Back At It Again At Krispy Kreme at 8:45 AM on August 17 [5 favorites]

I will never put my name on my mailbox outside. What a nightmare! I highly encourage you not to do this either.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:50 AM on August 17 [2 favorites]

Put your name in your mailbox. Your mail carrier might do so for you, anyway. They've got stickers.

Like Back At It Again At Krispy Kreme says, at least one day a week, your mail is delivered by someone who doesn't know the route. It could be someone who is brand new at their job and is completely panicked about everything they have to do. It's more likely someone who has been at the job for a little while, but who also works 10+ hours a day, 6+ days a week, and who therefore isn't inclined to give themselves more work (by, for instance, taking back the letters). If you keep the letters in your mailbox for another day or so, I'm willing to bet they'll end up getting taken, once your regular carrier (assuming you have one) sees them. Your regular carrier is motivated to keep the route neat and tidy, but the others aren't.

Again, whenever dealing with issues related to your mail delivery, start from the assumption that the person you're interacting with hasn't had a day off in over a week, doesn't know when their next day off will be, and works outside in the summer heat for the entire day.

And also always make super duper sure the stuff you're returning doesn't say 'Or current resident," because mail carriers hate/love getting to circle the phrase and write "THAT'S YOU."
posted by meese at 9:26 AM on August 17 [2 favorites]

Effectively returning to sender / refusing mail requires that you thoroughly obliterate your address from the envelope. When the Post Office only has the return address, to the return address it will go.
posted by MattD at 9:35 AM on August 17 [1 favorite]

Yeah, put your name inside your mailbox, not outside it. That said, in my experience, this may not make a huge difference. We have a sticker inside my mailbox with our names on it, and also a sticker clearly saying "so-and-so no longer lives at this address." Didn't make any difference.

What I did was have an inexpensive custom red ink stamp made up that says:
Return to sender
Not at this address
No forwarding information
For ease of use, I keep the stamp right in the back of our mailbox so I can simply sort through the mail, strike through my address and stamp any letters that are not meant for us, and leave the stamped letters out for the mail carrier to pick up on the next visit. This has made some small difference, but only to the extent that the mail is actually returned to the sender and the sender cares enough to edit their records. Some senders clearly don't care, and there is at least one collections-type company that continues to send mail to my address for someone who hasn't lived here for 20+ years.
posted by slkinsey at 9:37 AM on August 17 [4 favorites]

Three important pieces of info that are not getting their due:

1. If there is a barcode visible on the mail and it is placed in outgoing mail, the address will not be read, it will be sorted automatically and delivered. You have to black out the barcode and line out the address.

2. The carrier is typically the person who does the final sort of the mail for your block (technically within the ZIP+4 code). Your normal carrier will typically know the names of the people at all the addresses on your block, but some are filling in temporarily or just not very observant. Personally, I would be pretty irritated if I left mail marked "not at this address" for the carrier and the carrier didn't make a note of who it was for. But I also understand that it is more helpful to list the people for whom mail is delivered, rather than rely on the carrier to know for whom mail is not to be delivered.

3. You really want to refuse any incorrectly addressed mail that has "Address correction requested", even junk mail. Because the one thing that will stop the junk mail is for it to get bounced back to the sender, they do not want to send to people who aren't there. There's nothing morally wrong with simply recycling it, but far better to get it stopped entirely.
posted by wnissen at 10:15 AM on August 17 [6 favorites]

We’re in the process of moving and when we set up our mailbox at the new place (trailer park which has a bank of keyed mailboxes), we had to go to the PO. When they finished rekeying the box, they left a green business-envelope-size card inside that had two parts: one for us to fill in the names of the current occupants, and a tear-off strip to leave in it if it’s vacant. We left it back in the mailbox like it said, and eventually the carrier took it (though it lasted through a few deliveries, which was odd).

Not sure what exactly triggers that card being left or if it’s available to non-PO-controlled units, but maybe worth asking so they can update their records.
posted by tubedogg at 11:48 AM on August 17

I've moved apartment/house a few times over the past couple decades, and I always write "Moved - Return to Sender" on the mail from previous occupants and then drop it in an outgoing mailbox; so long as it doesn't say "or current resident" I never see it again. You're not supposed to cross out the recipient address and barcode but I usually do, seems to keep the OCR from automatically sending it back to me if it ends up back in the normal mail stream.

I have never had the same mailbox for incoming and outgoing mail with the flag thing though, so I pretty much always have had easy access to an outgoing mail drop. Not sure how much that changes how mail gets handled if you have that style.
posted by Aleyn at 11:54 AM on August 17

When they finished rekeying the box, they left a green business-envelope-size card inside that had two parts: one for us to fill in the names of the current occupants, and a tear-off strip to leave in it if it’s vacant.

This would have been one version of a Vacant Notice.
posted by zamboni at 12:05 PM on August 17

it didn't come back. I don't know where it went

We used to hear of a /dev/null of a destination called the Dead Letter Office.
posted by Rash at 12:34 PM on August 17

If there is a barcode visible on the mail and it is placed in outgoing mail, the address will not be read, it will be sorted automatically and delivered.

The upper bar code on business envelopes (the FIM) is for postage verification and the lower POSTNET only contains the destination zip code. These are both USPS only.
posted by Rash at 12:46 PM on August 17 [3 favorites]

This has never worked in my experience. We have a blue street mailbox around the corner; I've taken similar mail to that box with "NOT AT THIS ADDRESS" and "RETURN TO SENDER" scribbled all over it and it STILL makes its way back to our home. Multiple times. Now I just chuck it in the recycling.

You gotta take a black Sharpie and COMPLETELY OBLITERATE the barcode. Mail is dumped en masse into sorting machine well before any human being actually looks at it.
posted by rhymedirective at 1:21 PM on August 17 [3 favorites]

lower POSTNET only contains the destination zip code.

Technically, POSTNET was replaced by IMb a little while ago.
posted by zamboni at 2:46 PM on August 17 [2 favorites]

IMHO, you need to write on envelope "NO SUCH PERSON - RETURN TO SENDER"

If you just write "not at this address", they may think they delivered to the wrong house on this block or something.
posted by kschang at 4:44 PM on August 17

So for some reason we get periodic mail for the now-deceased former owner of the house and for a former resident from fifteen or twenty years ago.

I would leave those pieces in the box, with the mail for the deceased person marked as "deceased" and the former resident pieces marked as "Not at this address".

As a former mail career, we had bins back in the station where we would sort misaddressed mail. Marking mail for deceased people as "deceased" is definitely helpful, there was a bin for that. Just don't expect fast results on getting that mail to cease coming. You have to consistently send back those misaddressed pieces for it to "stick" and even then when a sub is doing the route, stuff will get through.

Sounds like your mail carrier was having an off day, which happens. Don't hold it against them, please. Otherwise, avoid sassing anyone who is regularly working in some sort of service capacity for you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:20 AM on August 18

I have my name inside the lid of my mailbox, and I get mail from the former (6+ years ago) occupant all the time. I've added "recipient unknown" to "return to sender" and that has some success. If I get the same letter back again I scribble out my street address on the envelope and try again.
posted by TwoStride at 2:03 PM on August 18

Response by poster: An update: this postal delivery person has decided that they will not deliver our mail until we add our names to the mailbox and has been returning all our mail to sender, as I just discovered.

Mail has been delivered to us under our names at this address for almost fifteen years, we asked them to take some mail that didn't belong here and they have decided that they will, without notifying us, start returning all our mail to sender. I have to say that I am really pushing down the anger right now. This is pure spite but you can't fight city hall.
posted by Frowner at 1:57 PM on August 23

Response by poster: A further update: the post office has sorted things out. I have reluctantly put names on the mail box and am consoling myself by getting a replacement for our old mostly broken mailbox, which I really should have done before. I should say that as a broad generality our local post office has always been extremely helpful and also the weather has been a nightmare, so I'm sure that the mail carrier was Not In The Mood.

I told my wrath, my wrath did end, etc.
posted by Frowner at 2:29 PM on August 23 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I mean, I didn't tell my wrath to the post office, I just told it to metafilter. At the post office I asked nicely, both because being wrathful at the people who control your mail is a bad idea and because I wouldn't have the heart to be mad at someone in person over something like this, especially in this weather.
posted by Frowner at 2:42 PM on August 23

you're a lot nicer than I would be. That carrier is wildly, illegally, out of line.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:49 PM on August 23 [2 favorites]

Ouch, Frowner. This is the regular carrier? You'd think that it would be in their best (long term) interest to shut off the supply of incoming mail to people who cannot be reached. Are you signed up for USPS Informed Delivery? I would want to know what mail to expect if I had a carrier who's going to go off like that.
posted by wnissen at 4:00 PM on August 23

Response by poster: And one more follow up: It has been a beastly few weeks, weather-wise - very hot, bad air quality. Right now, my feeling is that Perhaps We Are None Of Us At Our Best, and if the carrier is willing to accept the names on the mailbox and deliver the mail, I will consider the whole thing an artifact of the heat. If they really want names on the mail box and it really pisses them off not to have them, well, I'm not the one walking around in the snow and rain and heat and gloom of night and so on.
posted by Frowner at 4:07 PM on August 23 [2 favorites]

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