9 Ways to Manage Your Parent’s Stuff After They Die

When a loved one dies, they inevitably leave behind a lifetime of possessions that need to be dealt with before you can prepare the house for sale. On top of the physical labor comes a range of complex emotions that make any task a hundred times more daunting. According to Barbara Fane, LCSW, BCD (1):

“Grief may impact you or loved ones in the following ways:

  • concentration is compromised
  • completing projects seems impossible
  • memory and recall are less sharp
  • ability to make even simple decisions is reduced
  • organization and planning are unusually challenging
  • a general sense of ‘absent-mindedness’ sets in”

When cleaning out your relative or parent’s home, here are some helpful tips to make this stressful job a little more manageable.

  1. Stock up on supplies. Come prepared with small and medium moving boxes, packing paper, tape, contractor bags, and sharpies. You may have to do multiple supply runs, but try to have enough that you can box or bag up what you need to without breaking your stride. It doesn’t hurt to have a notepad, pen and post-its as well. Designate an area or corner for Keep, Donate, and Trash/Recycling, and label accordingly. Bonus tip: make sure you have snacks on hand! This process can be draining and you will need to remember to fuel and hydrate.

2. Start with the heaviest clutter. Tackle the attic or basement first, which are also the areas that are usually easiest to sort quickly (and relatively painlessly). Remove everything that is obviously trash – empty boxes, broken furniture, old paint. Collect sentimental items to sort through later (in a less dusty location). Make a pile of items to donate that are in good condition. Do the heavy lifting at the beginning – it will feel like a much bigger mountain after days or weeks of exhausting sorting.

3. Be thorough and meticulous. Look in every nook and cranny – oftentimes items of value (either financial or sentimental) will be hidden among perceived “junk.” Sort through piles of miscellany, desk drawers, bedside tables, etc. carefully. Look under drawer liners, behind file cabinets, and on top of bookcases. One client of mine found stock certificates hidden in a folder of coupons. Another found secret bank account numbers in between piles of old newspapers. Peek under every stone.

4. Save photos and precious memorabilia. Photo albums, memory boxes, cards and notes, personal artwork, medals, trophies, slides, etc – anything irreplaceable or unique should be sorted and set aside. Keep a box or two of the items with the most meaning for you, and label it clearly so you can plan to digitize or organize it at a later date. After the project is complete, do a quick second sort when the pressure is off, to see if you can leave anything else behind. Photos of that family vacation you missed? Others might appreciate the memories, so pass it along to someone who was there.
Digitizing services:

5. Hold onto important paperwork. Save and set aside all wills and trusts, life insurance policies, birth certificates, deeds and titles, social security cards, recent tax returns and bank statements. Check with an attorney if you aren’t sure about what’s most important. Save address books in case you need to contact someone you’re not familiar with. Make another box for shredding, and recycle everything else. You can always go back and weed out duplicate copies or out of date documents down the line, but paper sorting can become a huge time suck if you aren’t careful.

6. Be realistic about selling. Unfortunately, older items don’t always retain their value. Selling pieces individually might give you the most return, but when you factor in the time it takes to list, advertise, and ship, it may not be worth the effort. Consider holding an estate sale for high volumes of quality items. Many estate liquidators will give you a free consultation to let you know what you can expect. Otherwise, donate to your favorite local charity and get a tax deduction receipt.
Hunt Estate Sales:

7. Get “lazy” (and don’t feel guilty about it). Arrange for donations to be picked up and junk to be hauled away. Call a mobile shredding company for large volumes of sensitive paperwork to be handled on site. Order food to be delivered if you’re hungry. You have enough on your plate already, trying to handle errands and donation runs on top of everything else will spread yourself too thin.
Mobile shredding services:

8. Give yourself a pass. It’s incredibly difficult to make instantaneous decisions about what to do with every item. Make a pile next to Keep called Maybe – things you’re not sure you want or need, but don’t necessarily want to give or throw away. Go back at the end of the day and reassess. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to decide on the second go around.

9. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Siblings, family members, even neighbors are often ready and willing to lend a hand – especially if they remember your loved one fondly. If the job is too big, you don’t feel comfortable asking for assistance, or you live out of state, consider bringing in a professional. Look for someone thorough, thoughtful, and trustworthy who can help ease the burden with sensitivity and compassion. This process can be emotionally draining, and outsourcing some of the work will save you time and mental energy in the long run (and will speed up the process of selling the home).