Big Mistakes Landlords make which cost a lot of time & money!

I have been representing landlord’s for over 17 years now.  I’ve seen all sorts of shenanigans pulled by tenants. But I’ve also seen how landlords make a mess of their own case and jeopardize the outcome.  Here are the some of the many mistakes landlords make:

  • Failure to run a credit/background check on tenants, usually because the landlord doesn’t want to pay for it, yet this cost can be passed off to the tenant.
  • Failure to have the tenant fill out an application.
  • Failure to collect a big enough security deposit to cover actual physical damages to the property, although in Chicago mis-handling of the security deposit can lead to a whole new set of troubles.
  • Failure to hire a lawyer when you’ve hit a brick wall – like when the tenant files a jury demand or when your property is in an LLC, Partnership or Company.
  • Failure to make motions or other legal steps at the appropriate time and to deal with the latest circumstance presented:
    1. Motion to appoint a special process server when the Sheriff didn’t succeed in serving the tenant(s) with summons and court papers
    2. Motion for use and occupancy when the tenant files a jury demand which drags on the case and causes you the landlord to be losing out on monthly rent as the case proceeds
    3. Initiate Interrogatories, Document Production and Requests to Admit which the tenant(s) must respond to or suffer consequences of failing to answer
  • Failure to know a Landlord-Tenant law exists in your City or Village which governs your actions and the actions of your tenant.
  • Failure to be practical and make a business decision to negotiate with the tenant to end the case and stop the bleeding.

Zoe Biel is a practicing attorney in the Chicagoland area.  All information provided in this blog is meant to be informational and not a substitute for seeking out the advice of an attorney based upon your own individual case.

Expansion of my Mission

I set out when creating this blog to help offer the personal perspective of a lawyer regarding my baptism by fire into the area of Probate, Wills, Trusts, Special Needs Trusts, and dealing with wrapping up someone’s affairs after they die.  I will continue on that path, however, I have decided I have a wealth of information to offer from a personal point of view which may be useful to you or someone you know.

All information provided here in this Blog is informational and should not replace your consulting an attorney in your State with your specific situation.

How to cancel accounts – utility, insurance, other – in the name of a deceased person.

One of the oddest tasks I had to address was cancelling or modifying utilities held in my Uncle’s name so the lights, cable and phone could stay on while my cousins still lived in the house.

Charter Cable, in South Carolina, in addition to wanting an original death certificate, it required the Probate Court Order showing I had been appointed as the Personal Representative (aka Executor) and required that I present it to them in person with my ID.  Such meant that changing anything would have to wait until I was in town again. Ridiculous since the point of closing accounts is to stop spending money.  Once I had provided Charter with the Court Order, in order to change the account name to one of my cousins and handle the account for her I had to provide them with a Power of Attorney from her to me, once received then they would finally talk to me. Frustrating since I was the one writing all the checks and paying all the bills.

Monitronics – an alarm service – required me to send them an original death certificate and wouldn’t talk to me until they received it.

Despite repeatedly informing the different utility companies to start mailing the bills to me in Illinois, they often wouldn’t process the request, usually claiming they couldn’t until they received the required documents – like the Death Certificate, or the Court Order appointing me as Personal Representative or the Power of Attorney. This lead to them continuing to mail bills to the house, where no one was at to collect and caused late fees to accrue.

Also frustrating was being told during an initial call that there was a refund due on the account for cancelling it, calling months later to find out where the refund was and learning that such information was inaccurate. A lot of time spent on the telephone — Wasted!

Also strange is how homeowner and car insurance policies are handled and vary from state to state when the account holder dies.

In South Carolina, after the account holder dies, the policy for the house and/or the car(s) will go into non-renewal status and whenever the term ends for that year insurance STOPS! meaning no insurance. I had to shop for an insurance policy for the house on the secondary market (much more expensive) to maintain protection until I could find someone to buy the house and was granted permission by the Probate Court to sell the house — which took filing a separate Petition to get such permission.  This is one of the key reasons why planning ahead and placing the house in Trust with successor trustees named or conveying title to heirs to be co-owners of the house while one is still alive would be very helpful and avoid lots of hassles and expense later.

An important point to consider, even if the house of the deceased is empty and you are trying to sell it you MUST have the house properly locked and secure, keep the electricity on and maintain some form of insurance.  The last thing you would want to face is a lawsuit against the Estate of the deceased person by someone who fell or had an accident in the house or about the property due to your failure to have the house properly lit and adequately insured while you are trying to sell it for proceeds.



Since I started writing this blog I have asked a number of people whose opinions I value to read it and let me know their objective thoughts.  Further I have been spreading the word about the subject of Disabled children, Disabled Adult Children, Special Needs Trust and the need for families to plan ahead — needless to say I am startled by how many people are affected directly with these situations.  Just today I met two people who are part of the Disabled Children community.

So my aside today from my step by step story is to provide resources, which I will aim to do by State and which I will update when I find a new useful resource.

State of Illinois Resources

IPADD or Illinois Parents of Adults with Developmental Disabilities is an Illinois based group of parents of Disabled Children offering a community to parents, family and friends to  share information and resources.

NAMI  or National Alliance of Mental Illness is a national based organization with chapters by state and by areas within the state. The Illinois chapter can be found at NAMI Illinois which has 25 affiliates based in county seats.

Aspiritech is a group based in Highland Park, Illinois which employs high functioning Asperger Syndrome people as well as Autistic people.

Illinois Healthcare Portal is the State government’s website of information regarding services, benefits, programs and more.

The Council for Disability Rights has a long list of agencies targeted to specific matters that could be very useful inclusive of support groups, attorneys, government agencies and more.

The Douglas Center in Skokie, Illinois is a day program offering employment opportunities  which include manufacturing, commercial/industrial sewing, packaging, assembly, shrink wrapping, labeling, heat sealing, fulfillment services, etc. through their partnerships with local manufacturers, businesses so individuals can work contracts/projects. They offer pre-vocational skills and work training.


How resourceful HR people can be — claiming 401(k), pension, payroll and other death benefits

One of the first people I sat down with just days after my Uncle died was Vicki – a woman in the HR department at my Uncle’s company.  Vicki — and the other HR staff members I spoke to at various times like Toni — was so helpful, knowledgeable and nice.

She was able to tell me immediately:

  • how much accrued vacation my Uncle had earned;
  • how much payroll had been earned since his last payroll check;
  • when exactly the last payroll check was given;
  • that it was auto-deposited into his bank account;
  • reminded me I would need a W2 from the employer come tax time;
  • my Uncle had rolled over his 401(k) — where and when;
  • what the current 401(k) had earned and how to contact TransAmerica to make our claim for my cousins — the beneficiaries;
  • that he had a life insurance policy with Liberty Mutual and how to contact them to make our claim on behalf of the beneficiaries;
  • that he had a pension from a prior job and how to contact Lockheed Martin to make our claim.

Considering no one in the family — including my cousins — knew about the 401(k) rollover, the current 401(k), or the pension; and we hadn’t yet sat down with my Uncle’s investment advisor and didn’t know what he was going to tell us this meeting turned up a lot. Oddly I never did find paperwork among my Uncle’s papers in his home regarding the 401(k), the 401(k) rollover, or the pension.  If Vicki or Toni or the HR department hadn’t known about these matters and informed me we might have never learned about at least two items which together amounted to about $15,000 — which could mean a lot to family to help pay for funeral expenses, bills and more.

After that first meeting I called Toni or Vicki on occasion with questions and to request the W2 when 2015 ended — they were always helpful and thoroughly answered my questions.

Without the ‘roadmap’ Vicki gave me about many benefits my cousins were entitled to I might have been on a wild goose chase for possibly weeks.  Thank you!



Tackling paperwork after someone dies – Part 2

I mentioned in my last post that I would discuss filing insurance claims, filing for 401K and pension benefits, converting IRAs, cancelling utilities, updating car and house insurance policies. I have decided these subjects should be divvied up into separate posts so I can be thorough without boring you to tears.

So this post covers making claims on life insurance policies.  Among the first items we tackled with the Kids (my 2 cousins) after their father died was the life insurance policies my Uncle had purchased. Based on the size of them I am certain he bought one to cover the funeral expenses, wrapping up debts and opening a Probate Case and the larger policy was the nest egg for his two kids.

Caution: You will be surprised at how often you must supply an original death certificate to vendors and agencies, even to cancel the cable bill. When you are asked by the funeral home how many you want to order, DO NOT SKIMP just because it may be $5.00 for a piece of paper. These are among the most important items you will need to prove the status of the person’s death. Order at least 10!

Here’s where it got tricky for us due to logistics and human error. The agent printed out the stack of documents we had to fill in and sign times two — one set for each Kid, as both were listed as primary beneficiaries.  I read through them first very carefully and filled out everything I could, as my cousins would have easily gotten confused immediately with the legal language used.  I then sat down with each of the Kids separately so we could go through it carefully with my explaining each section in the hopes they might understand some of it and ask questions, and they signed it.  This part went smoothly on the first policy; However we ran into a snag when the notary who was going to notarize the Kids’ signatures discovered that one of their IDs was expired. This was just the beginning of the hurdles we had to jump over.

Lesson A: when submitting the insurance claim paperwork at a minimum (each company may have its own requirements) the signatures of the claimant-beneficiaries MUST be notarized, you MUST submit an original death certificate and a copy of each claimant-beneficiary’s photo ID.

To get the State ID renewed at the DMV they required a utility bill, other bill or birth certificate to prove he was who he claimed he was and resided where he claimed he resided. He had NONE of those. All bills were in his father’s name.  It was a Friday late afternoon and the prospect of driving nearly an hour away to the Department of Birth Records to get a certified copy and getting back in time for the funeral service wasn’t going to work; further we had no idea what they were going to require of us to get the Birth Certificate.

My other cousin – his sister – remembered that she once saw her mother put away ‘someplace safe’ a mini version of her brother’s birth certificate. Yet one of the Aunts was certain she had gone through the ‘strong box’ and found nothing like a Birth Certificate.  We were up a creek.  We put the task off until we could go through the house and papers again.  When we did tackle the task again on the weekend two of us went through all papers and boxes containing papers again, including trash bags of paper we thought we would discard.  Luckily we did find it!  It was in the bottom of a hanging file folder in the ‘strong box’. It was so small it got overlooked. On Monday morning we went to the DMV when it opened and got his new ID. Then I delivered the papers to the insurance agent with a copy of the ID so she could complete the notary and submit the papers.

Lesson B: When going through someone else’s papers don’t be shy. I just dumped everything out of containers so I wouldn’t miss a thing.

On the second policy claim we had some hurdles to get over too: In addition to having to wait for my Uncle’s doctor to respond to the insurance company’s request for medical records to confirm his health and that the claim was legitimate — which took longer because the doctor’s office closed for about a week and we couldn’t get a hold of anyone; One of my Uncle’s sisters had completed the claim forms with the Kids, as it was time for me to get on a plane and go home.  Accidentally she transposed the numbers in the home address for mailing the insurance proceeds and no one caught the mistake before mailing the claim papers off.  I didn’t discover the error until weeks had passed and I started to wonder where the proceeds were.  Luckily I had selected that the insurance company issue a savings account for each Kid rather than issuing a check.  The insurance company had mailed the savings account books out to the wrong address — which legally didn’t exist, it fell in the middle of forest. They made us complete an affidavit, but agreed to let us fax it in.  It still took another 2 weeks for the replacement savings account books to arrive. So in total that insurance claim took about 45 days.  That felt like an eternity when the Kids didn’t have access to any monies whatsoever. But that’s a story for another blog.

Lesson: Keep a copy of all paperwork you submit to the insurance company. It makes talking to an agent over the telephone a lot easier when a question or problem arises.

One of the good things about the bigger policy from Liberty Mutual was the offering of options regarding the proceeds. We could request a cashier’s check or we could opt for the savings account — just like at a bank.  They sent a checkbook, the account earns interest and there wasn’t additional steps to take to open the account since it remained with Liberty Mutual.

“What should I do first when someone dies?” — Part 1

I have found that family members who seem to be close may not know as much about of that person’s life or what plans s/he may have put down in writing as to what to do if s/he dies.  When it came to my Uncle — dying at 66 somewhat unexpectedly — his sisters knew broad strokes of things he mentioned to them but were not familiar with specifics.  So frankly I took it upon myself to be ‘nosy’. After all none of us knew where to begin and my cousins (“the Kids”) didn’t have a clue about financial and legal affairs in general or his.  My Uncle was a very private person and given the capacity of the Kids (although 29 and 32 years of age) due to their disabilities he didn’t discuss these types of matters with them — so you begin at the beginning.

Since the group of us — the Kids + my Uncle’s 2 sisters, my Uncle’s cousin, a nephew & myself — had a lot to tackle in about 4 days before each of us had to head back to our own lives hundreds of miles away, we needed to maximize our time while still spending time with the Kids, reassuring them they were going to be okay without their parents and we would help them get through this time.

We needed to:

  • Plan a service at the local funeral home;
  • Make a slideshow of family photos for the service;
  • Jot down thoughts for those of us who wanted to say a few words;
  • Talk to the HR contact at my Uncle’s job about his payroll, benefits, etc.;
  • Talk to the insurance agent about the cars, the house, etc.;
  • Talk to his investment broker about his IRAs and life insurance policies;
  • Clean up the house;
  • Toss stuff the Kids don’t need to see or deal with that were very private;
  • Find photos and documents;
  • Get clothes and shoes for the Kids for the service and in general;
  • Buy groceries for the Kids so they’re stocked up once we all left town;
  • Set up bank accounts for the Kids since now there were no parents to buy groceries, etc.;
  • Check the doors, locks, windows etc. to make sure the house was safe for the Kids to stay in for the next month;
  • Fill out paperwork to make insurance claims, etc.;
  • Get the Kids IDs updated since they had expired;
  • And more….

To accomplish many of the tasks listed above we needed documents that we believed were in the house.  So you go through and look all over the house for all of the following — this is no time to be shy!

  • Wallet(s)
  • Checkbook(s)
  • Credit card(s)
  • Insurance policies and papers
  • IRA and other investment documents and statements
  • Birth certificates
  • Social security number(s)
  • Mother’s maiden name
  • Insurance papers
  • Business cards for insurance agent, lawyers, etc.
  • Will(s)
  • Trust Agreements
  • Bills: utilities, medical, etc.
  • HR contact at her/his job
  • Name and number of his/her boss
  • Address book
  • Safety deposit box keys
  • And all other papers….

I caution you, don’t be quick to toss out something just because it doesn’t look important at first glance. Carefully go through all papers to make sure it isn’t something you or the family might need later on.

So we set up teams and we set up work areas.  I bought clear storage containers, big Sharpie markers, garbage bags, a journal, boxes of latex gloves, 5 oversized bright T-shirts for each of us — just for starters.  We went to Walmart probably twice a day buying items to help us complete our To Do List.

  • One of us went through my Uncle’s computer and deleted private items;
  • One of us went through my Uncle’s gun collection and other collectibles making an inventory, cleaning them, deciding how to store them;
  • One of us went through all the photos and artwork;
  • One of us went through my Uncle’s clothes and other things with one of the Kids so he could decide what he wanted to keep and what we would donate.
  • One of us went through the desks, the closets and the books looking for all papers, documents, files, envelopes, etc. — all of which were brought out to me to carefully read.  I read everything before making decisions on what was urgent, what we needed to keep and what we could shred and toss.

Now you may ask: “why did they need latex gloves and oversized t-shirts?” Although the house my Uncle, Aunt and the Kids lived in was a cozy two bedroom, they had lived there since 1982 and had accumulated a lot — a lot of Books, CDs, DVDs, VHS, papers, LPs, dishes, camera equipment, computer stuff, and more.  They lived in the mountains, far from town — far from the grocery store, the movie theaters, the hustle and bustle — so they kept themselves quite occupied and entertained.  It took us at least 20 hours to go through it all just to be able to say ‘we combed through the house and found all the important papers’. We also wanted to be comfortable leaving the Kids in the house for about 30 days until the apartment they would move to would be ready.

We tried to utilize office supplies we found in the house right away. I labelled file folders and organized documents immediately as I went through them as I knew I’d be taking the storage bin home with me.

Ahead of me were many tasks, a lot of phone calls, letters,  faxes, emails — all things I am used to doing in my everyday legal work for clients.  But of course this was a lot more personal.  I had to be very careful handling the legal affairs of 2 disabled adults who didn’t understand or comprehend any of these matters and who certainly couldn’t  handle these matters on their own.  The Kids instantly became my clients and unknowingly trusted me with their lives and their future well-being.

In Part 2 I will discuss filing insurance claims, filing for 401K and pension benefits, converting IRAs, cancelling utilities (or at least trying), updating car and house insurance policies.

In Part 3 I will discuss opening a Probate case.

“I thought if I wrote a Will my family could avoid Probate!”

Last year when I was talking with my husband about dealing with Probate Court regarding my Uncle’s Estate – since my Uncle’s family wouldn’t know where to begin or what to do – my husband said to me:

I always heard that if you wrote a Will then Probate Court could be avoided.

I was surprised to hear this. But the more I’ve spoken to people the more I’ve learned this is what people have come to believe.  This is totally inaccurate information.  A family of a recently deceased person CANNOT avoid Probate Court simply because the person did leave a Will – containing specific instructions about their Estate.

First, an Estate is defined in layman’s terms as all of that person’s assets at the time of their death. This includes all of the following:

  • Money in bank accounts
  • Cars
  • Houses
  • Furniture
  • Clothing and shoes
  • Jewelry
  • Cameras
  • Books
  • Other personal belongings and more….

Second, Probate Court is a specific division of the Courts that handles the proper distribution of an Estate (someone’s assets) upon their death whether by enforcing a valid Will or by following Intestate Succession Rules (statutory rules that must be followed because the deceased person did not have a Will or a valid Will). Probate Courts also prevent the mishandling of an Estate, oversee the handling of the Estate and distribution, makes decisions as to whether a person’s Will is valid or not, and also handles creating Special Needs Trusts.

Back to my story: I was discussing with my husband that when I opened my Uncle’s Estate (this is what they call the procedure) with the Probate Court I learned that although my Uncle had a Will – which I presented to the Court – it was not valid because I did not have the “blue ink” signed original.  All we could find — among the many piles of papers the family and I went through in the house — was 2 copies, signed, notarized and witnessed.

Lesson 1: Make sure you leave your “blue ink” signed original Will well stored so family can find it EASILY & QUICKLY . You may want to keep it in a safety deposit box with other key documents, like birth certificates, Trust documents, items that are hard to replace.  You might want to leave it with the lawyer who drafted it and simply leave a notation in multiple locations — like your address book, a journal, an email you send to key family members or friends — as to who to contact to obtain the original will.

The odd part to me about finding my Uncle’s Will and it not being valid is that when I asked to be appointed as my Aunt’s personal representative to wrap up her Estate in the Probate Court — since my Uncle started it but didn’t finish it — I discovered that her Will submitted to the Court and accepted, was a copy.

Lesson 2: “It never hurts to ask.”  When you find any important documents among someone’s belongings keep them all as you never know if you might need it or can use it.  Maybe my Uncle submitted the copy of my Aunt’s will to the Clerk and it made it into the file with no one noticing it was not an original….  Maybe the judge accepted it because he stated he diligently looked for the original and could not find it but that this copy was identical to the original… I’ll never know. 

Lesson 3: Don’t assume because the person wrote a Will that it is valid or that you don’t have to Open a Probate case. 

Another reason for opening a Probate case is to allow creditors of the deceased to submit their claims to the Estate and allow the Court to make sure those creditors should rightfully be paid rather than letting the family simply pay a debt without knowing whether the debt is valid and collectable.  Once the Probate Court closes an Estate creditors can no longer make claims to the Estate. They missed their chance.

With my Aunt’s Estate the Probate case remained opened for about 24 months — longer than typical on a simple, small Estate mainly because my Uncle didn’t complete tasks once he opened it.

With my Uncle’s Estate, it will remain open for a minimum of 14 months from the date of his death.  I opened it in June 2015 after he passed in April 2015.  I should be able to close it fully in June 2016 as no creditors have made any claims.

Lesson  4: It pays to act promptly and  efficiently. If need be talk to a lawyer about opening a  Probate case or at a minimum ask questions of the Clerk of the Probate Court, see if there is a free help desk to obtain directions from.

I will try to add to this Post links to public information for point of reference.

Have you ever tried to advise someone to plan for the future of their children – after their death?

If you have ever tried to advise a close friend or a family member that they should plan ahead to care for their children –  in the event of the person’s death – then maybe you have walked in my shoes.   This isn’t such an unusual situation – suggesting people write a Will so it is clear what their wishes are regarding their funeral or memorial arrangements and leaving gifts for children and family members.

This does get complicated where one’s children are disabled – at any age!

This all began in July 2013 when my mother’s sister passed away, I had thought unexpectedly, but discovered later she was actually quite ill and hiding it from me.  I got the call, made arrangements to get a plane as soon as possible, pack, rent a car, travel all day, arrive at my Uncle and cousins house at midnight –  and that was just the beginning.  I thought I was simply going to help with the funeral, console my cousins – since I knew how they felt losing a mother –  and grieve myself.

After getting over the initial shock and visiting with my cousins over a box of old photos — telling old stories — I had a realization:

What’s going to happen to them when their father dies?

This was an awful moment for me and I knew I had to take action.  I certainly wished I knew then what I know now — that my Uncle was also sick and hiding it from me — he died a year and half later.

My cousins are now in their 30s, yet neither of them drives – or ever will – they don’t work a full-time 40 hour a week job – and never will – they cannot handle their own legal and financial affairs.  My cousins are legally disabled. Due to mental and physical impairments they are simply not as intelligent or sophisticated about some of the goings on in the world – and they need some help.  Neither has ever written a check and cannot budget or balance a checkbook; Nor do they always understand the mechanics of how things work (like the computer talking to the internet through the cable line and cable box) they just want it to work. Surprisingly though they recently impressed me with their thoughts on the upcoming election and the candidates – they do follow the news.

I aim to share my story of how my cousins became my clients and how I have become something of a guardian to them – although not officially or legally.  I hope this may assist you in your own affairs or in helping someone else.

Zoe –

Disclaimer: I am an Illinois attorney practicing in real estate matters. This blog and the information herein is not meant to be legal advice that you should rely on. You should always consult an attorney about your individual circumstance – especially as every State’s laws are different in the matters of Probate and Special Needs Trusts.