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A New Death Penalty

One version of the paradox plaguing the GIs in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 goes like this: “They have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” What was satire in 1961 has apparently become policy today at a senior living facility called Moraine Court in Bridgeview, Illinois, near Chicago.

Moraine Court’s catch is a pip: if you die without giving 30 days’ notice, your security deposit won’t be returned.

The lease agreement for Moraine Court tenants demands a security deposit equal to one month’s rent. Of course, giving notice is fine for people who just decide to move somewhere else, but not so fine for the folks for whom Moraine Court is a final address.

“Joseph Heller would be flattered,” was how AARP member Ray Borowski of Riverside, Illinois, put it in his e-mail message to On Your Side after his father, Ray Sr., passed away on January 23, 2009. The management refused to return the $1,445 deposit.

Security deposits are protection against someone skipping out on rent due or damaging the property.  Borowski told me that wasn’t an issue. “We’d already paid through the end of the month. I cleaned the room very thoroughly, and it was inspected and given an okay on January 30th,” he said.

Borowski pursued the case for 11 months before contacting AARP. My first call was to Moraine Court’s administrator, Ari Haas, who defended the practice of requiring notice from tenants (or their estates) as standard policy for facilities like his. However, when I checked with a neighboring facility called The British Home, I was told they do routinely return security deposits in the event of a tenant’s passing, and even prorate remaining days on prepaid rents. In other words, if his father had been at a different facility, Ray Jr. might have received a refund instead of the bill he actually got for part of the next month’s rent.

Surprisingly for a senior home, Moraine Court’s lease agreement makes no mention of what happens in the case of a tenant’s passing.  The passage Moraine Court applied to the situation refers instead to “voluntary” discharge.

Tenant law as applied to senior facilities can be a morass, but Jean Elliott, housing director of Life Services Network, the largest trade association of assisted/supportive living facilities in Illinois, said she assumed all facilities returned security deposits in the event of death. “That would be good business practice,” she says.

Given the absurdity of charging rent to the deceased, I expected Haas would provide Ray Borowski Jr. with an appropriate refund and be inclined to revise his lease agreements.

That didn’t happen. 

Instead, Haas called in his attorney, Stephen Sher, who said any settlement would require that Borowski first sign a non-disclosure agreement, which he declined to do even though it means that Moraine Court may end up keeping the Borowski deposit.

The story serves as a good warning to the rest of us who may at some point find ourselves making similar housing arrangements for our parents, spouses, or ourselves.

First, when contemplating moving to any senior living facility, get all the information you can and do as much comparison shopping as you can. To know your options, you might start by finding local agencies that can guide you. The federal government’s Eldercare Locator can set you on that path. For printable checklists and other aids, look at this site’s Family channel, in particular at Housing Options link. Costs can vary widely even among places with similar services.

Second, show agreements you’d have to sign to a lawyer of your choosing. After all, any home is a huge investment. A few hundred spent to protect your interests is a wise move. Have your lawyer explain the facilities’ fees and terms—including what happens if the tenant is hospitalized or discharged involuntarily—before you even think of signing. Smart shopping can mean a higher quality of life and less stress for your entire family.

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