It had been a week since Dad’s funeral, and life was getting back to normal for Sharon. Despite the sadness of the occasion, it had been nice to be with her brother and sister and their families. She hadn’t been to her dad’s house since he went into the hospital. She dreaded walking into the empty house, knowing it contained a flood of memories. As she got in her car to drive across town to the house she grew up in, the lump in her throat grew. She thought about all the happy times around the dinner table, and many other memories. As she unlocked the door and stepped into the house, emotion gave way to panic: “What are we going to do with all this stuff?“
I describe Sharon’s response as the “deer in the headlights” look, and I’ve seen it hundreds of times as I’ve helped people settle their parents’ affairs. The sadness of losing your last surviving parent quickly turns to dread, frustration, even anger, as a lifetime of accumulation hits you like a brick. Some families struggle for months to liquidate their parents’ estates, but by following a few simple steps, you can clear your parents’ home in less than two weeks. Here’s how.
Eighty percent of the contents of most estates are either donated or thrown away. Contact a local refuse company to let them know additional trash will be placed at the curb. Collect boxes for smaller objects and buy plenty of heavy-duty trash bags. Select an organization, such as Goodwill, Kidney Foundation, or local religious organization, for things you’ll donate and contact them about pickup service.
Enlist Your Siblings
Ideally, all surviving adult children should participate — it saves time and gives everyone an opportunity to select anything they want to keep. The more you communicate with your brothers and sisters, the less chance of hard feelings and conflict.
Locate Important Documents
This could be difficult if you didn’t discuss important documents with your parents, which is why it is so important to have this conversation when your parents are healthy. Most older people keep their important papers in one place, such as a “strong box”, safe, or filing cabinet. What to look for: a will, bank account information, insurance policies, retirement and investment accounts, titles to cars and the house, location of keys, contact information of attorney and financial planner, etc.
Get Professional Help
At the very least, enlist the services of an “estate planning attorney” to help you settle any accounts listed above. If you believe there are valuables among your parents’ possessions, hire a personal property appraiser to determine what those items are worth. If you decide to sell the house, contact a realtor.
Walk through the house with a notebook and list anything that has either financial or sentimental value. Make copies of the list and give it to your siblings.
Divide the Contents Among Siblings
Use a common spreadsheet to record the “wish list” of each heir. Have an appraiser assign values to each item on each wish list for financial equity, and to avoid additional feuding. For items that several heirs want, have an objective third party select names from a hat, if you can’t agree to share or distribute these items. Division of property should take place with only the children present; no in-laws or grandchildren, please.
Set a Date to Empty the House
Work with your siblings to find a date when they can help clear out the house together.
Establish Three Collection Areas
Before you start hauling things out, determine areas for things you will keep, things you will donate, and things you will discard. This will eliminate confusion and thus reduce the time it takes to clear everything out.
Be Fair and Share
On the day you clear out the house, give your siblings a chance to walk through once more and select things they would like to have. If there are disputes, aim for “financial equity.” If both brothers want dad’s hunting rifle and there was no will to specify who gets it, one gets the rifle and the other gets something of equal value. This is where most disputes occur, so try to establish some ground rules before you start. Be willing to share the item with a sibling, if possible.
Start From the Top
On the day you clear out the house, begin in the attic and systematically work your way down. If you have enough people, work in pairs and create assembly lines.
Gloves, dust masks, insect spray, ladders, hand tools, etc. will protect everyone from unnecessary injury and make the job run smoother.
Consult with refuse haulers and local environmental agencies for information on how to safely dispose of old batteries, cleaning solvents, paint, etc.
Check the Hideouts
If your parents lived through the Depression, there’s a good chance they hid their valuables. Favorite hiding places include toilet tanks, ice cube trays, books ($100 bills randomly placed between pages of books), mattresses, beneath floorboards in the attic.
When in Doubt, Throw it Out or Recycle
You will be tempted to keep everything: don’t! It will just clutter up your own house, putting your kids through the same thing some day. You’ll get done a lot faster if you are quicker to toss than to keep.
Make It Fun
Put some of Mom and Dad’s favorite music on the stereo. Have plenty of snacks and cold drinks, and order some pizza or sandwiches. If you run across something with a funny story behind it, share it with your family.
Cleaning out your parents’ home is hard work complicated by the emotional impact of revisiting so many memories. Following these basic steps won’t make it easier, but you’ll get the job done faster. This task may even bring you closer to your siblings than you realize.
copyright 2009, The Estate Lady