I recently moved to a new town and rented a house from the owner, Reuven. Last week, Shimon, Reuven’s brother, called me. He claims that he inherited the house from his father, and Reuven does not have the authority to rent it to me. He further informed me that they are scheduled to go to a din torah.
When I contacted Reuven, he became furious and said that we had signed a lease; the fact that Shimon is claiming ownership of the home is none of my business.
Q: I am already living in the house. Should I pay rent to Reuven or Shimon?
A: It is obvious that you are not obligated to put yourself at financial risk as a result of the disagreement between Reuven and Shimon. If one pays rent to a landlord who, as it turns out, misrepresented himself and is not actually the legal owner, the tenant must now pay rent to the legal owner for the months he has already spent living in the house (C.M. 363:10). Therefore, you are not obligated to send the rent money to either one of the disputing parties, since this would put you at risk of having to pay double rent.
Additionally, since it is not known at this point in your circumstance who the owner is, neither one can file a definitive claim against you.
The essential question is whether Reuven can demand and obligate you to take the rent money and put it in escrow. This method would require you to give it to a third party to hold, so that when Bais Din decides who the house belongs to, the owner would be able to access the rent money right away.
Precedent for this approach is found in a case in which a buyer does not recall who sold him an object and five people claim to be the seller. Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 222:2) states that the buyer must give the money to Bais Din to hold until the matter can be sorted out. Seemingly, the same approach should be followed in this case.
However, even in such a circumstance, many Poskim disagree and maintain that he can keep it in his possession until the matter is resolved (Shach ibid). The reason is that when there is a concern that one may lose out by giving the money to a third party (e.g. if the money is lost, he will not be released from his obligation to pay the seller), one is not required to give the money to a third party. It is only if both parties agree to leave the money with a third party that he would be required to do so (Y.D. 305:29 and Shach 35), because if so, he bears no responsibilities if the monies are lost (see Nesivos C.M. 76:4,5).
In your circumstance, if both parties - Reuven and Shimon - ask for the money to be deposited into an escrow account where it will be secure and available for the true owner of the house, you are required to comply with their request.