Property Management Q & A - Autumn 2015

We have a dispute over a security deposit accounting.  Two residents shared an apartment. One provided a forwarding address and we sent the accounting to that one by US mail.  The other one didn’t leave a forwarding address, so we emailed the accounting to her.  We have problems now with them both.  The one we wrote to is disputing some of our charges (basically, that we could have done repairs more efficiently) and the other is disputing that we never mailed her anything.

Your question doesn’t list all the facts here, so there are a few gray areas where I will make some assumptions. 

First, you seem to be implying that you treated them as two tenants, each with their own deposit for a single apartment.  The general rule that most landlords try to hold to is that the group of tenants (however related, work colleagues, friends, significant others, married, etc.) constitutes a single tenancy and that there is a single deposit. Usually, the landlord does not try to (or want to) track how much each individual deposited.  Similarly, when making deductions from the deposit, most landlords treat any damage as having been caused by the group collectively. Otherwise, the landlord needs to make assumptions (almost impossible to prove) as to which tenant kicked the hole in the wall, etc.

Next, let’s look at the exact language of RCW 59.18.280 so we can compare what you did against what the law requires. It states in relevant part, “[within 14 days]… the landlord shall give a full and specific statement of the basis for retaining any of the deposit together with the payment of any refund due the tenant under the terms and conditions of the rental agreement…  The landlord complies with this section if the required statement or payment, or both, are deposited in the United States mail properly addressed with first-class postage prepaid within the fourteen days.  The notice shall be delivered to the tenant personally or by mail to his or her last known address.”  

The law seems pretty clear that the deposit accounting must be either sent through the US mail or be hand-delivered to the tenant.  Where the tenant doesn’t provide a forwarding address, you are to mail it to their last known address (which is almost always the unit that you rented to them).  It is hard to imagine how you comply with the law when your deposit accounting is sent via email, where (in most cases), you will have a refund check to send to the tenant(s).

Overall, it seems that you complied with the law. You mailed the accounting to at least one of the tenants at the only address you had (you likely would have had no way to know whether the group of tenants stayed together or not).  What is not clear is whether your refund check (if any) was made payable to one or both of the tenants.  It is my practice to put all former residents’ names on a single check.  I also require as part of my lease agreement that the tenant provide one forwarding address to which the accounting will be mailed.  I also recommend that all the residents’ names be listed as addressees on the envelope.  

The law doesn’t explain what to do in the case where you receive multiple forwarding addresses.  My only recommendation in that case is to send a copy of the accounting to whatever addresses you receive, but that you mail any refund check in an envelope addressed to all of them.

Christopher T. Benis is an attorney with Harrison-Benis, LLP with offices in Seattle. The information contained herein is not legal advice. You are encouraged to consult with your attorney before relying on anything contained herein.

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