I Ask: When Can I Start Throwing Out The Former Homeowners’ Mail Without Going To Jail?

We’ve been living in this house for two years. Our neighbors may still ask if we’re new to the neighborhood, but one person knows EXACTLY how long we’ve been here.

Our postman.

After one year, the post office will no longer forward mail to the previous owner. So wintertime last year, my mailbox began to fill with the hopes and dreams and spams of another person.

Every single day.

I usually write on these letters something to the effect of: MOVED IN 2008 SO CLEARLY YOU AREN’T FRIENDS. STOP WRITING THEM. I, then, bundle them up, toss them in a blue mailbox (remember we don’t have a fancy metal box with a flag), and my conscience and I are as good as gold.

But we are a year into this little production, and I don’t remember to mail my OWN letters anymore. I dread the postman’s arrival. All the work that he brings me with hardly a real letter to ease my pain.

Save me.

I know that it’s a federal offense to tamper with someone’s mail. And by know, I’ve heard. On Law and Order. But they are sending it to the wrong person! Whose mail IS it? The address’? The name’s? When can I throw it away? I JUST WANT TO THROW IT AWAY. What about the spam mail? Will the judge distinguish between solicitations and real letters when sentencing me to jail for ripping up the thousands of letters and dumping them on my postman’s head?

So I ask: How long do I have to send back the former homeowners’ mail?

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on LateEnough.com, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

32 thoughts to “I Ask: When Can I Start Throwing Out The Former Homeowners’ Mail Without Going To Jail?”

  1. If I’m not mistaken, you can write “REFUSED” on the envelopes and send them back. I still get stuff for my deceased father and his last stepmother. He died in 2001 and she died in 1999. I throw Dad’s out and write DECEASED on hers and send it back to the PO.

    I’ve tried sticking them all in envelopes and sending them back that way but it never works. People don’t care.

    I say chuck them.

  2. It is so funny that you posted this today! I emailed the USPS last night with the EXACT. SAME. QUESTION. I’m tired of writing “not at this address” and forwarding the mail to these people, but I can’t just throw it away for the guilt I feel! I mean the junk mail I toss, but we still get tax stuff from the county for them, personal letters, invitations, bills… ACH! In my question to the USPS, I asked if we would be allowed to fill out a change of address form FOR them to help things along: I’ll let you know what I hear back.

    1. Here’s the reply from the USPS. I’d say drop them an email and put them to work for your mail issues too! Good luck… (to us both!)

      “Good Evening,

      Thank you for contacting us with your concern about the previous resident’s mail and please accept our apology for the inconvenience that was caused by you having to handle the delivery to them. We appreciate that you took the time to inform us where we need to focus more attention.

      It would be helpful if you could send me the names of the individuals that have mail that is being sent to your address that does not belong to you. We can try to capture their items and redirect them. If you receive any more of them in your box please return them to us as you have in the past by placing them in your mailbox and raising your signal flag.

      I will alert your carrier of these details as well as prepare an “ALERT/REMINDER” card for her daily use.

      I look forward to hearing from you with name information and thanks again for letting us know how we can improve your service. “

  3. It’s been six years since we bought our house and we still get mail for Morris and Alice.

    At first I was young and naive (plus they received a check once), so I actually drove to their new house (they gave us the address) (I promise I’m not that creepy) and put it in their new mailbox.

    Then I went through a year period where I’d put “Not at this address” and dump it in the nearest mailbox.

    Now I tear the crap up and toss it. I mean, Christmas cards after six years and you’ve not yet been notified of the new address? Maybe you’re not as good as friends as you once thought. Just sayin’.

  4. I am going through the same thing except I have been throwing it away since the beginning. They NEVER forwarded their mail – except maybe by calling specific companies and asking for their address to be changed in the records. I have gotten EVERYTHING for the old owners since the very beginning – 14 months ago. Junk mail, bills, credit card statements, TAX documents and bills (shouldn’t the county be aware that they moved??). We get more mail for them than for us. I have written “Return to Sender Incorrect Address” amongst other messages. Several of those have come BACK to us. So I throw it all away.

    I even go a step further to make an effort NOT to rip any of it up and instruct my husband not to do so as well. If they don’t care enough then I don’t care enough. If someone wants to take their credit card offers out of the trash and steal their identity… I’m not going to hamper that process. My way of sticking it to them. I am not an evil person – but their mail makes me ANGRY!

    THROW IT AWAY! I say it is not tampering because it is your mailbox and you aren’t opening the mail. You’ve done your part. (Of course, I’m no lawyer and I have NO knowledge of what “tampering” truly means.)

  5. toss it! it ain’t email; there’s no “reply to all” function here, there’ll be no end to the sending back. The courtesy things expires after 2 years. but then again, don’t listen to me, over here no one will lock you up for shit like that…..

  6. I say start tossing them. We’re 7 years in and STILL getting shit. I toss it all and I don’t even rip it up. I sorta secretly hope someone steal their identity and screws their credit cuz they totally did a hack remodel job and sold us this house that has all but fallen down around us. JERKS
    oops sorry, did I get off topic. Point was supposed to be…SEVEN years. Eventually you’ll have to give in and toss it or the resentment will kill ya, might as well start today.

  7. I’m so glad you posted this! We still get mail (including tax stuff) for the people who lived in our house 5 years ago. It drives me crazy and I don’t think we get near the amount you do. I spent forever looking around the USPS website the other day and found nothing helpful. Hopefully Julia will have an amazing solution for all of us.

  8. Do you not leave the mail for your mail carrier at all? If you run into him/her, you could hand over a stack of mail and say that person no longer lives here. That would involve talking to a person, though. You could also just leave the mail in front of your door marked “RTS: NOT AT THIS ADDRESS.” I feel that dealing directly with the mail carrier would be more effective than dropping off in a community mail box.

    Also, I came across this site on reducing mail. Scroll down to the middle for tips on how to fill out the change of address form on the former resident’s behalf. http://www.obviously.com/junkmail/

  9. I have been getting the previous owner’s mail since 2003. Originally, we simply wrote on the envelope “MOVED” or “WRONG ADDRESS” or “DOES NOT LIVE HERE” and we’d throw it back in our mailbox, sideways and sticking out because I do not have a flag either. But what worked and cut down the amount of mail was first writing “RETURN TO SENDER” followed by one of the above. It has been about six months since our last piece of mail for her. Good luck!

  10. Oh my gosh. You are so nice! We got Roberta’s mail and in the very beginning we handed it off to neighbors that “had a forwarding address” (for the first month ONLY). Now why this wasn’t given to US or, better yet, THE POSTAL SERVICE or IMPORTANT BUSINESS I don’t know (one package was from FEDEX). Then I wrote “return to sender” on the mail – basically because my mind liked singing like Elvis as I wrote it. Now we only get junk in the mail for her so I just throw it away. I totally thought if it came to my house they were entrusting me with it to do as I see fit. It IS on m property so if I can shoot a man in self-defense I thought I could certainly throw away someone’s mail.

  11. You have been way to kind to my dear friends at the USPS (read with sarcasm). I have a serious dislike for the postal service since my former postal carrier decided to skip all deliveries to my house because I have a dog. No, my dog did not do anything to her. She simply did not like the fact that my dog existed so she refused to deliver. Anyway a large battle ensued…blah, blah, blah….I have a PO Box and I hate the USPS. BUT that is another story. What you are missing is the human component. I say you grab a grocery bag and stuff it full of former resident’s mail. Then, pick a day and wait for your mail carrier. Hand over the large heavy bag of mail marked “Not at this Address”. With any luck they will get the message. (“get the message” ha, ha Sorry, I am such a nerd!)

  12. Wow. It’s like we live on the same planet. We’ve been living in our home for EIGHT years (count them, eight,) and we still receive Christmas cards from the same woman every year for the previous inhabitants. I’m like, “SERIOUSLY? It’s a Christmas card. Shouldn’t you update your contact list every once in awhile?”

    The saddest part is that I’ve now seen her children grow up, in the generic “everybody gets a professional shot of their kids for the holidays” enforced Christmas Code photo. I’ve kept them all. They’re like my secret family.

  13. I would be afraid to throw it away because one, I am paranoid, and two I would feel internally guilty that I would get in trouble. What?!? That is paranoia, right?

    Anyway, I second what a previous poster said and start writing “RETURN TO SENDER” on the what looks like important mail. It will go back to the original sender and they can remove that (your) address of their list.

  14. You can write “No such person” on it and drop it back in the mail.
    You can ask your postman what to do about the situation.
    You can have the mail forwarded to their new address.

    We lived in a college town for a while and the kids move around a lot from house to house and we do too, vagabonds that we are… It might not work for you since you have a slot, but inside the door of our mailbox we just taped a message saying “only these people live here..” with our names (and online names by which we get mail) and the postman started taking everything else back with them. 🙂 It’s pretty common to do that here since there are so many people moving house to house literally every 9 months due to school schedules.

    You can google the folks who used to live in your house and ask them to renew their forwarding. They’d need to do individual forwarding for everyone who lived there, but it would work and wouldn’t mess up your mail.

  15. It’s so funny because we bought this house in 2008, too, AND still get the old homeowners’ mail!

    We were just laughing about it last week because there are some things that are business-related and we don’t understand how it is still getting mailed to us!

  16. I found out when my mom died that ANYONE can forward ANYONE’S mail. They send a notice and if it’s disputed then they freeze it and do a check. Just think of the havoc we could wreak. Not that I’d ever do anything like that, but it’s fun to dream.

  17. Omg, we get mail for all liked of people who used to live here, including “Alice Jones and Clown Friends”. yes, I know, Scary. We’ve been in this same place 8 years, and I always throw it away.

  18. Sorry – I have you all beat. We’ve been in our house 12 years and are still getting mail for James and Lillian. It goes in the garbage. We can share a jail cell. 😉

  19. You cannot throw it away. Ever. This is a federal offense and it does not matter how many years you have lived there. You just put it out as return to sender for the post person to take back. The mail still legally belongs to them, even if it comes to the wrong address. There may be all kinds of companies, distant family and friends that have not written in years, but that may need to correspond with them down the road. People give close friends and important businesses their new address, but they don’t generally take the time to contact the dozens and dozens of people that have their address. Then there are people who have their address second-handedly, as in, all of a sudden they want to contact someone, so they ask someone else if they have the person’s address, and they give them the one they have. I move frequently, myself, and I do not have the time to contact every single person or business, every single church member (hundreds), every single relative (also hundreds), etc. I just contact the more important ones that I am more likely to have correspondence with. There may be something very important in those letters for all you know. But it’s a federal offense to open and find out, so all you can do is send them back. Also the one who wrote about Christmas cards after 6 years, I know a lot of people that don’t send Christmas cards to every single person, every single friend, every single year. They don’t have that much in postage money, for one. When you have hundreds of friends and relatives, you do what you can, and space them apart. Then there are people who are trying to contact someone they do not even know, for a specific purpose, such as maybe trying to locate adopted parents, or other family members. They might go online and search for a possible address. They have the right to know that the address they are using is not valid, in the form of having the letter sent back to them, stating this. Then they can keep searching for other addresses. If they don’t get the letter back, they may assume this person wants nothing to do with them, when in fact, that person never even got the letter.

    1. your response is the EXACT reason why after 1 year I throw every single piece of mail directly in the trash. here’s a newsflash for ya’ d. barnett: the world doesn’t revolve around you. we aren’t your personal assistants. and I don’t give a shite that you “do not have the time to contact every single person or business, every single church member (hundreds), every single relative (also hundreds), etc”

      f off

    2. D Barnett, YOU don’t have time to deal with your contacts, but the rest of us are supposed to have time to deal with them for you? Over and over and over? Wow. What an irresponsible narcissist.

  20. I still get mail for someone who lived here only 9 months 25 years ago. If someone didn’t give PO a forwarding address they are either a lazy, irresponsible narcissist like Barnett here, or maybe they are trying to get away from stalkers including those who send christmas cards and including disreputable debt-collectorss. The best idea is to tell post office they don’t live there anymore, put return to sender on them for a month or so, post inside mail box or above slot who you will accept mail for, and trash anything that gets through.

  21. he Legal Information Institute’s record of the code shows that if a person mishandles a letter or postcard not belonging to him, and this mail has been previously in the hands of a U.S. Postal Service employee or office, the person mishandling the mail is subject to fines or imprisonment. The statute mandates that people are not permitted to open or destroy mail that does not belong to them. Those who are found in violation of the statute face prison time up to five years and are subject to fines as well.

  22. I say throw it all away.

    Sure I’ve only been in this house four months but why should I put in all the hassle of finding a postbox and posting their letters when it could so easily take them less than 5 minutes to go online and change their address details or pay the fee to get it redirected by the post-company itself? I changed every single record I had, every account to have my new address and not once have I had any redirected mail.

    It’s not my responsibility to update THEIR records. It’s not my responsibility to go around picking up after them because they couldn’t be bothered or think to update their address. If I wanted that I’d work as a posty.

    I’ve redirected their mail for the first month I’ve been here. Any longer than that, I just start binning it.
    If it’s something important, from the bank or court, tough luck. Those accounts should be the FIRST thing you change. I’m not being held responsible for others’ stupidity.

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