Whether you are a landlord or a tenant, the process of renting or leasing a property comes with its fair share of complications and challenges. One of the biggest challenges comes with keeping track of one’s specific responsibilities, as in many situations the tenant and the landlord’s responsibilities can overlap, leading to confusion. Thankfully, there have been recent attempts to clarify these matters: new legislation was enacted in order to clarify the responsibility for payment regarding services provided by municipally-owned utilities to rental properties, with amendments being made to Indiana Code § 8-1.5-3-8. This was clarified even further in the past few weeks, as Attorney General Curtis Hill issued an advisory opinion stating that landlords cannot be held responsible for their tenant’s utility bills.  This goes a long way towards better understanding the specific needs and requirements that come with the landlord-tenant relationship, so it seemed pertinent to go over the statement and what it entailed.
 AG: Landlords not responsible for tenants’ municipal utility bills. (2020, January 10). Herald Journal. Retrieved from http://www.newsbug.info/monticello_herald_journal/news/local/ag-landlords-not-responsible-for-tenants-municipal-utility-bills/article_dc837c18-19f2-54f8-8fc9-16ae20d86088.html
What Did He Say?
In his advisory opinion, Attorney General Hill stated that:
If a tenant is responsible for payment of utilities under a lease, the municipal utility cannot hold the landlord responsible for payment unless the landlord is party to the service agreement. The utility cannot deny service to subsequent occupants of the property, and unpaid utility bills do not constitute a lien on the property. Although the statute does not explicitly prohibit a municipal utility from requiring a property owner to sign for the account with a tenant so that the landlord is responsible for the tenant’s delinquent bills, such a requirement would be contrary to the purpose of the statute as a whole and may not be permissible under Indiana’s Home Rule Act. Hill made this statement in response to inquiries made by Representative Woody Burton of the House of Representatives, who sought clarity on the responsibility of payment for services offered by municipally-owned utilities to rental properties.
 Hill, C. T. (2020, January 9). Official Opinion 2020-2. Office of the Attorney General. https://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/newsbug.info/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/5/fc/5fc7d45c-cc5b-5674-bb1e-ae57b4ceca8f/5e187e3a65682.pdf.pdf.
What Does It Mean?
The most obvious point that was made here is that when it comes to municipal utility services, tenants are ultimately the ones responsible for paying their bills. Even if a tenant’s bills become delinquent, a landlord is not responsible to cover them, nor should be expected to. Furthermore, there are additional protections in place to guarantee that landlords and their other tenants are not punished due to the actions of a delinquent tenant, as the utility cannot deny services to subsequent occupants. All in all, the Attorney General shows that the recent amendments offer protections that are specifically in the landlord’s favor, emphasizing the importance of making sure tenants know what is expected of them. Interestingly, while Hill does clarify that municipal utility cannot hold a property owner responsible for their tenant’s utility bills, he suggests that they might still potentially be able to request that the owner sign a contract that would place the onus of responsibility on the landlord rather than the tenant. However, he did state that doing so is acting against the purpose of the statute, suggesting it might also exceed the utility’s authority under Indiana‘s Home Rule Act. Whether this is simply quirk of wording or a legitimate option for municipal utilities has yet to be seen.
Given the degree of confusion that often comes with renting or leasing a property, it is good that we are getting more clarity regarding certain responsibilities. All of this goes a long way towards making these requirements as simple as possible, which is beneficial for everyone involved. When everyone knows what their responsibilities are and what they are liable for, it means less conflict and more cooperation on the whole. Of course, there is still room for clarity regarding the landlord-tenant relationship and their individual responsibilities, particularly when municipal utilities are involved. For instance, though a municipal utility cannot hold a property owner responsible for a tenant’s utility bills by default, Attorney General Hill seems uncertain if a utility could still request that a landlord to agree to be responsible for these bills due to potential conflict with the Indiana Home Rule Act. Perhaps this will lead to further amendments down the line, but until then we have made considerable progress that ultimately benefits everyone involved when renting or leasing property.