Epping Forest District Council has been accused of “lacking in the understanding of bereavement” after the family of an 86-year-old grandmother were ordered to clear her flat within 48 hours of her death or face paying rent.

Thelma Steward died at her home in Park Avenue, Hastingwood, where she had lived for 57 years.

But as her family struggled to come to terms with her death, they were told by council officials to remove Mrs Steward’s possessions or her estate would be charged.

Valerie Steward, Thelma Steward’s daughter in-law, said: “We have found the council's methods unfeeling, unacceptable and sadly lacking in the understanding of bereavement.

“It is utterly ridiculous to expect a grieving family to clear a house and hand in keys within a couple of days under the threat of having to pay rent.

“It's not so much the money, but the pressure on family to do an awful job before the funeral.
“The worst thing is the property is still standing empty after eight weeks; so what was the rush?”

Referring to procedure following a death, the council’s tenants’ handbook states: “The next of kin or executor should arrange to have the contents of the property removed as soon as possible.

“Full rent is payable from the tenant’s estate for the time between the death of the tenant and the return of the keys to the council (even if the tenant was receiving benefit).

“Any outstanding rent at the time the keys are returned should be paid by the executors from the tenant’s estate.”

Thelma Steward’s funeral took place on April 24, after which the family handed back the keys.

Mrs Steward added: “It was sad because we used the house as a meeting place for the funeral but it was completely empty.

“If there was a young family or someone who was desperate then handing over the property quickly would be fair enough.”

The pensioner had been receiving housing benefit and her estate was charged three weeks rent.

The Guardian is awaiting comment from the council.