If you’re a new resident in a house or apartment, you’ll likely get snail mail sent for the previous tenant(s). What are you supposed to do with mail for a previous tenant and how do you stop it from showing up day after day? Because at some point, the task of taking care of it gets old.
Open, toss, shred?
In a word, “No.” It’s a federal crime to open or destroy mail that is not meant for you — even junk mail.
If you do open something by accident, not to worry, you won’t immediately hear sirens. Someone would have to prove you intended to steal something in order to involve the authorities.
If you know the previous tenant or the person whose name is on the envelope and that person told you to open the mail, then it’s all right to go ahead and do so. FindLaw cautions that if you get charged with “obstruction of correspondence,” you should contact a criminal defense attorney right away.
Trashing the mail is the same as destroying it. Plus, the sender will never know the person is no longer at that address. Also, the previous tenant may have filled out the correct forms, but this piece of mail fell through the cracks. That person might appreciate getting that $14 check from Great Aunt Gladys.
Note that you are not responsible for holding someone’s mail. If a previous tenant tells you that, reply with a hard “no”; they need to fill out a change of address form.
Send the mail along
If you know where the person now resides, you can forward the mail to them by crossing out the address only — leave their name — on the envelope. Write the new address near the incorrect one. Then, on the same side of the envelope write something like, “Please forward; not at this address.”
In addition, if there’s a bar code on the envelope, cross it out. This is part of the USPS’s automated system and removing it makes the system register the mail as “undeliverable.”
Thinking you’ll be a good citizen by filling out a change of address form for the other person is not a good idea. Again, this is a federal crime. Who knew? You do, now. If you fill out a change of address form for the person, they will get a notification in the mail, and you’ll be in hot water.
If you have no idea where the other person lives, write “moved,” “not at this address,” or “return to sender, address unknown” on the envelope. This lets the post office know that the person is no longer at your address, but the post office will not necessarily return the letter to the original sender.
Eventually, the post office will get all this information into the system and the wrongly addressed mail should stop coming to you.
What about junk mail?
It’s still mail and falls under the heading, “it’s a federal crime to open or destroy mail that is not meant for you.”
If you know that the intended junk mail recipient is deceased, you can report the death to the Direct Marketing Association. Click this link for “Deceased Do Not Contact Registration” to stop the junk mail from coming to you.
How can I make wrongly addressed mail stop coming?
If sending mail back doesn’t work, you can put a note into your mailbox. In the note, write to your mail carrier the names of the people who no longer live there. For example, “Former Tenant’s Name is not at this address” or “Please deliver mail only to Current Tenant’s Name.”
You can also speak directly to your mail carrier and explain the situation. Since you may not always have the same mail carrier every day, you have to hope that they bring back the news and share it with the office.
What should I do when I move?
You don’t want to annoy the next person who takes over your address.
As a first step, you should fill out a change of address form.
But there are entities you might want to contact directly. Consider reaching out to utility providers, the newspaper, schools, the IRS, Social Security Administration, DMV, election offices, the Department of Veterans Affairs or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Filling out the change of address paperwork and submitting it online is easy and painless. It takes 10 business days for the change to become effective. The USPS delivers to 160 million residences, businesses and P.O. boxes; they’ve got a lot on their plate so be patient.
Show some courtesy
When deciding what to do with mail from a previous tenant, you should do the right — and legal — thing by either forwarding the material or returning it to the sender. Don’t forget — you’re going to move someday, too, and would want the next tenant to show the same courtesy to you.