What are my rights and options if I’m a tenant?

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What are my rights and options if I’m a tenant?

To sum this up the best I can, my mom was with her boyfriend for 26 years; they never married. They lived in his father’s home the entire time. However, 2 years ago, he was thrown out but she stayed. My 3 children and I moved upstairs from them 7 years ago. The owner of the home passed away just over a year ago. He left in his Will that we could stay 1 year after his death as long as we continued to pay the bills. That was up this past month and unfortunately I did not get the place we were supposed to move to at the last minute. I then spoke to the executor and explained and he said as long as I let them show the home so that it could be sold then it wouldn’t be an issue. Now, a week later, I just got a demand to vacate immediately which gives me 2 weeks. The home is infested terribly with black mold, pipes disconnected under the sink, roof caving in, they continue to shut the emergency switches off so the kids an I have no heat and the list goes on. The mold is so bad that my son’s asthma is terrible and I need some answers. What do I do? Do I call the

Board of Health and if I do will they help place us? How long do we have to get out? Also, the executor just today told me that his lawyer told him that he can come here in my apartment whenever he pleases and he will be doing so. I explained to him that nothing in here whatsoever belongs to the estate so there is no reason to come and that he better not come here with my children. He is not welcome but he insisted that he will be here and I will do nothing. Do I have any rights? I’m lost. I’m scared and I don’t want to make an irrational decision. I’m single, disabled and have 3 children to protect. I have to be extremely cautious here.

Asked on October 22, 2018 under Real Estate Law, New Jersey

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 3 years ago | Contributor

THE key issue is whether the bills you are paying would be considered rent. You very much want it to be considered as rent; therefore, you want to collect your proof of payment and show that you have been consistently paying them, month after month. The reason is, if you are paying rent--so if a court would  consider the bill payments you make as the equivalent of rent--you are a tenant; if you have not been paying rent, you are a guest.
In either event (tenant or guest), you can only be removed by a court action--you can't simpy be locked out, and if you are locked out without a court order, you could go to your county court (special civil part) and seek an order letting you back in.
However, once you get past the fact that both tenants and guests can only be removed by a court action (the type  of action varies), the rights of each are very different; that is why, if and when they try to bring a legal action to remove you, you will try to convince the court that you are a tenant. (While I am describing what you will do, you really want a landlord-tenant attorney to help you; NJ landlord-tenant law is very complex, and even non-specialist lawyers get tripped up. You want an expert on your side. If you can't afford one, try contacting the Legal Services Corporation: they have some very good lawyers who work for free for some people who can't afford lawyers.)
If you are a tenant, then since the home is not "owner occupied" (since the owner is deceased), you come under the Anti-Eviction law. That means you can only be evicted for certain specifically defined "good cause," and not just because they want you out or even that the original time your were supposed to be there is over. As long as you pay your rent (or rent equivalent) and don't do certain other obvious bad things (don't break the place up, for example), they can't evict you except for certain specialized reasons (e.g. selling the home to someone who doesn't want tenants and wants to live in it), in which case they at least have to provide several months' notice. 
Also tenants have a right to a habitable space: if they take you to court, you can raise the lack of habitability as an issue and the court may be able to help you. You can also contact the municipal health department. 
And they cannot enter a tenant's space at will: only on at least 24-hour notice, at reasonable times (generally M-F, 8am - 6pm), unless there is an emergency (e.g. water or gas leak).
But if you are a guest--so if a court were to decide that the bills you are paying do not equal rent--then you can be asked to leave at any time: guests have no right to stay there once the people who control the space (e.g. the executor) want them gone. And a guest has no  right to a habitable space--if a guest doesn't want to stay somewhere, he/she should leave. And a guest has no right to keep anyone out: they could enter whenever they want. So if you can't convince a court that you are a rent-paying tenant, you have effectively no rights.


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