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Water heater lease leaves deceased man’s daughter with $2,200 bill

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Even death can’t get you out of contractual obligations, especially when it comes to renting a hot water heater.

Phillip Dionne, Ogdensburg, died last year from lung cancer, leaving his daughter, Debra A. Wright, Winchester Mass., in charge of tying up his affairs. Mrs. Wright said Wednesday that her father would be horrified if he knew he left his daughter financially on the hook for a seven-year rental agreement he had signed a year before with Enbridge Services for a hot water heater.

Enbridge, she said, claimed his estate still owed the company $2,200 after his home was sold and the new owner returned the hot water heater.

“They told me he didn’t fulfill his contract, so they are billing the estate,” she said. “This isn’t really a failure to fulfill the contract; he died.”

Even so, a contract is a contract, said Enbridge Rental Program Manager Gregory D. LaPointe.

“It’s not a pleasant thing to have happen when somebody dies, having all these bills coming in,” he said. “But it’s a due and honest bill that the customer incurred at the time, and I’m sure the customer was aware at the time that they would be liable for this no matter what.”

Mrs. Wright said after she complained, the company told her she could buy out the remainder of the contract for $1,495 or purchase the water heater for $1,995.

“The cost they were willing to give us for the hot water heater is more than twice what a new one would cost,” she said. “People need to understand that when they sign a contract from Enbridge, their estate can be held liable. I could understand that if my dad chose to move and the buyer did not want the hot water heater, he would have defaulted on his contract, but he died. It’s unconscionable.”

Mr. LaPointe said the situation is no different than backing out early from a property or vehicle lease. The lease holder expects that the leasee will pay.

“We up-front the equipment and the labor,” he said. “In exchange, we ask that you rent for a minimum period of time. In a case where somebody passes away, it’s a bill to the estate, just like any residual bill to the estate.”

The company got the equipment back, but Mr. LaPointe said that doesn’t mean it’s still usable.

“It’s difficult to lease used equipment,” he said. “Often we take it back and use it for parts. In most cases, the majority of the costs we incur are for labor, rather than the equipment. The labor is something we never get back.”

The terms and conditions of the contract do not carry a specific provision what happens if a customer dies, but it does say the customer may not terminate the contract early.

He said the contract could probably spell out more clearly the company’s expectations in the event of a customer’s death.

“We get the question, ‘what if I die?’ from a lot of older people, and we do try to explain it,” he said. “It’s not the easiest thing to bring up when you’re renting something.”

Mrs. Wright said she plans to take up the matter with the state Attorney General’s Office, which did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment on whether any similar complaints had already been lodged. In the meantime, she said, she wants people to know what they could be getting their next of kin into when they sign on the dotted line.

“The contract doesn’t expressly state that heirs and assigns will be held liable, but it doesn’t say they won’t,” she said. “Enbridge should be held accountable at the very least for informing consumers what the implications of signing the contract would be. The bottom line is, what Enbridge is doing stinks.”

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