How to Deal With Your Parents’ Stuff

A Parents’ Belongings

How to deal with it when they die

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Cleaning out a loved one’s home after their death can be a series of chores that can be emotionally, physically, and financially overwhelming. And what makes the whole task even worse is that it’s difficult to know where to start. The decisions around what to keep, donate, recycle, toss, or sell can be lengthy and depressing.

Fortunately, there are people who will hold your hand through every step of the process. There are professionals who specialize in “bereavement cleanouts,” or the lengthy and stressful task of emptying a loved one’s house after their death. I spoke to a couple of experts in the matter on the steps you need to take to sort through your family member’s belongings after they die.

1. Look at the Will. 

It seems obvious, but read the will, says Matt Paxton of Legacy Navigator, a company helps families with estate cleanouts. “A will is not an opinion, it’s a fact. You don’t get to keep the piano just because you want it, even if you’re the one doing all the work.”

 

2. Get in Touch with an Estate Lawyer and an Accountant

Hopefully your parent already had an estate lawyer and an accountant. If not, ask around for local recommendations.  If you’re settling the estate, you’ll need to get the ball rolling with an estate lawyer, and you’ll need to file taxes for the estate. An accountant can help with this. As you clean, keep an inventory of anything of value, and if you anticipate the will being contested, make it a pretty detailed inventory.

 

3. Set a Realistic Timeline

Paxton says his company estimates that one person can clean out one cubic yard (about the space of a dishwasher) per hour. That means you and one helper can deal with about 16 cubic yards per day. Use that math to estimate your time and how much help you need. Make a trip to a big-box store for contractor’s bags and cardboard boxes. You’ll probably need to go a couple of times once you get a handle on how much stuff there is.

 

messy home office4. Pick a Room

Deborah Goldstein, a professional organizer who specializes in hoarders and bereavement cleanouts, recommends working your way room to room rather than tackling the whole house at once.  She suggest starting with a room that is storing mostly junk, like the attic, basement, or garage.

 

5. Make Piles

As you go, make four piles or staging areas: one for stuff to go to the trash, one for donate/recycle, one for sell and one for consider keeping. “As you work through each room, you’re getting rid of the junk and you’re putting aside things to think about. Most people start with a lot of things in the “things to think about” pile, but as they work, they go back and do different edits,” says Goldstein.

5.5. (Maybe Stay in a Hotel)

It can be emotionally taxing to stay in the house you’re cleaning out, especially if your relationship with the deceased was not ideal. “If it was really toxic relationship, I think a hotel is worth it,” says Goldstein, though of course she notes that that decision depends not only on your finances but also on the state of the house.

 

6. Draw Straws and Have An Hourly Show and Tell

If it’s not clear before your parent’s death who gets what items from the house, says Paxton, “literally draw straws as to who gets to pick first an item to keep.” He recommends, if you’re working with helpers, to work in the same room together at the same time.—This will minimize suspicions that someone might be pocketing something.

 

7. Touch Everything. Literally Everything

Everyone I spoke to stressed that you have to check every pocket, every file cabinet, the toe of every shoe to find squirreled-away cash and valuables. “I’ve found diamond rings, safe-deposit box keys, cash,” says Goldstein. Says Paxton, “Check all the pockets, check every medicine bottle, check the freezer, check the toilet tank. We find a lot of money.” His compan

y will even run a metal detector over the backyard.

8. Deal With Paperwork As You Go

If you’re lucky, your parents were organized and had all their estate planning in place before they died, and that paperwork is neatly filed. But no matter what, you’re going to be handling every piece of paper in the house. Goldstein recommends designatinorganize paper pilesg one wall or area for paperwork and stashing it there as you clean out the rooms. Make piles by category.

 

9. If You’re the Executor, File What You Need to Settle the Estate

Regina Kiperman, an estate-planning attorney in New York, suggests getting as many copies of the death certificate as there are accounts to settle. Then, as you clean, you need to keep birth certificates, social security cards, military records, recent bank statements, medical and pharma bills, any stock or bond certificates, annuities, and life-insurance policies. Shred everything else if it has identifiable information. Keep an eye on the mail through the next tax season to see if there are statements or 1099s coming in that you didn’t know about. If you don’t know how to deal with computers or online accounts—like you don’t have the passwords—ask the estate lawyer for advice on how to proceed.

10. Haul Stuff Away

Paxton says his company tends to donate to local charities, like those that provide clothes to people getting out of prison. However, big charities will sometimes haul away furniture if it’s in good shape. For auctions, he uses Everything But the House. If you need local assistance and/or advice, you can google “estate cleanout + your city” for businesses that specialize in this kind of job.

And take it easy on yourself. It’s an emotionally fraught time, even more so if you’re dealing with this with siblings or other family members. “Try to be understanding of your siblings,” says Paxton. “And at the end of the day, it’s just stuff. Don’t lose your family over it. I’ve seen families break up over Beanie Babies.” He pauses. “Oh, and another thing: Beanie Babies are not worth anything.”

For the full article and to get more tips, visit Life Hacker

When you need help sorting through your parents belonging, reach out to Organize Me! A patient hand is waiting to help you!

Organizeme! Frederick, MD

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