Who Gets Your Folks’ Belongings?

(The following is excerpted from my book, How to Clean Out Your Parents’ House (Without Filling Up Your Own), just 99 cents today at Amazon.)

Going through a parent’s estate is a minefield for families. At a time when family members are at their most emotional and vulnerable, they have to make decisions that can cause all sorts of dissension and stress… unless their late parent left specific instructions regarding who gets their belongings. In the majority of cases, that didn’t happen.

So most families have the job of fairly and amicably working out who gets what. There are some good procedures for doing this, and we’ll get to them in a moment. But first, let’s look at some of the bombs that may go off as we tiptoe our way through this minefield:

Greed: Unfortunately, death triggers the greed gene in some people. You may be surprised at who gets greedy amongst your own clan. It might even be you.

Denial: One of the stages of grief, denial during the disposition of the estate takes the form of someone not wanting to disturb the estate: not now or next week, or ever. (Afterwards, this person often wants to take home all the trash and everything else no one wants, in an effort to “save what’s left of the estate.”)

Control: One or more family members try to take control of the proceedings, even if they have no claim for doing so.

Laziness: As the scope of the job becomes apparent, some family members decide they’re not up for it, and leave. But they’ll expect checks for their share of the proceeds just the same. In a similar vein, it’s often a family member who can’t or won’t go through the estate (or research, sell and ship any of it) that thinks it’s all too valuable to just give away.

Regression: Seeing parents’ possessions often triggers childhood memories, and childhood rivalries as well. Adults who are only a few years apart suddenly start behaving like big sister and little sister, complete with bossiness and whining.

Impatience: One or more family members who are understandably eager to get back to their own lives decide to just pitch everything in order to save time. This doesn’t go over well with those who are more sentimental, or those who know there are items of monetary value in the estate.

Vendettas: Old sibling rivalries and disagreements flare up, resulting in those with vendettas taking anything the subjects of their ire might want, even if they don’t like it, just so the “undeserving” don’t get it.

(Only children, are you beginning to realize the plus side of your situation yet?)

If the family is a blended family, complications abound. And of course, the estate is often larger because it may include some or all of the first spouse’s belongings as well as the second spouse’s.

So, how do we traverse such a minefield? Some ground rules are in order:

  • No one removes anything from the estate without the other heirs’ consent. (It’s the executor’s job to enforce this rule.)
  • Choose a date for going through the estate that works for every single heir.
  • Stay calm if a fight breaks out.
  • Have a mediator present if you expect trouble. A trusted and loved extended family member is often the best choice, but if that’s not an option, you can always hire someone. (Find a mediator in your state at http://www.mediate.com.)
  • The presence of your parent’s attorney will be helpful if the estate is especially valuable, but expect him/her to charge the estate for the time this takes.
  • As mentioned earlier, restrict the meeting to heirs only. (Naturally, heirs should consider the desires of their own families when they’re choosing items. They can even send photos and texts to gauge interest in specific objects.)
  • Don’t allow sudden and immediate disposal of the estate. One relative may be content with keeping only their memories and urges everyone else to quickly pitch the estate, but doing so might leave others in shock and regret that they didn’t take the time to go through it. Everything must be done fairly, even though it will take more time.  Besides, someone in a rush could end up getting rid of something very valuable. Convince them to hire an appraiser, which will buy time for the group to go through things.

Next up: How to Divide an Estate Fairly Between Heirs

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Clutter as a Protective Device

When someone has too much clutter, they need to consider why they keep so much stuff when it bothers them.

Usually, the clutter is protecting them from something. It may be keeping them from having to make decisions. As long as you ignore all your clutter, you don’t have to decide what to do with it all. Many people with too much clutter are also perfectionists; they think that their stuff needs to go to just the right places. The thought of making all those decisions of where to send each thing becomes overwhelming, so it’s easier to just postpone the whole effort and keep tripping on the clutter.

Another thought: your clutter might be a distraction from yourself. If you didn’t have all these someday projects lying around, you might have to focus on yourself and your life instead of all that other stuff waiting for you to do something with it.

Or perhaps the clutter serves as a buffer between you and the outside world. You keep people out because you don’t want them to see what a mess you live in. It’s a handy dandy excuse for not having people over.

There may be other reasons, but one thing is for sure: the clutter is serving some kind of purpose for you. Otherwise you would get rid of it, since it bothers you. Figure out why you keep it, and you’ll be one step closer to getting rid of it.

What We Can Do About Our Beastly Government

Some big news this week is that we pay more for taxes than for food and clothing. This is not surprising, and has been going on for quite a while. The fact is that most people are so busy trying to make ends meet that they don’t have time to stop and think why life is so hard, or what is to blame.

It’s interesting that this article, based on information from the BLS, doesn’t mention health insurance. People are literally paying thousands a year for health insurance, even if they’re fortunate enough not to have to use it. Since we’re being forced to do it, I wonder if it’s included in the totals for tax? I recently read a comment someone made to the effect that their health insurance payment is higher than their mortgage payment. I believe that, but how sad is it when a country forces its people to buy something they may not need, and at a higher monthly charge than what they pay for their housing?

Something has to change. Aside from revolution, which is being talked about in various corners of the Internet, is there a peaceful way to solve this problem? We try voting in new people who want to effect change, but something happens to them once they’re in power and they become even bigger spenders than those they replaced.

What else can be done? I think we have to stop financially supporting the government. No, I don’t mean tax evasion.  I mean tax avoidance. Make less money so you pay less in taxes.

Many people think this can’t be done. They have no concept of how they would live without making a certain level of income. But you can live on far less than you think you can, with a little ingenuity and forethought. In fact, there are people who live in this country who pay very little taxes…and they’re not on government assistance, either.

Some people call this starving the beast. I think there are all kinds of beasts that need to be starved (government is at the top of the list). When you stop giving money to groups who are hurting you or making it harder for you to exist, you feel better and life starts becoming easier again.

It feels like we have so little power to change things in this world; truly, we can only change our own behavior. But when we do only that, it’s amazing what can happen.

One Way to Overcome High Housing Costs and Low Pay

As the economy gets harder to live with in some areas, people are coming up with unique ways to survive financially. School buses are often the choice of those who want to work with their hands to make a portable home for their family, so that they can go where the work is without leaving their family behind.

I think we will see more of this as long as incomes fail to keep up with living expenses.

Where has Beauty Gone?

 

Vera placemats

The current downsizing trend isn’t just a result of the lousy economy (even though that’s what forced me and my family to downsize). I think the buying boom of the previous 40+ years has disappeared because there just aren’t enough beautiful things to buy.

I think about this when I go shopping for linens, as I did the other day. I needed some new washcloths as ours had gone all stiff, probably from my elderly dryer getting too warm for modern washcloths with their very specific washing instructions that including washing and drying on cool; my dryer doesn’t have a cool cycle, and we take hot showers, so modern washcloths are pretty much doomed once they get here.

While looking for the 4/$5 washcloths, I saw the towels, sheets and curtains; boring, all of them. They’re either in solid colors or bland prints. Gone are those pre-21st century days when I struggled to choose between bright floral prints (like those by Vera), tiny Laura Ashley-type stripes, and bold geometric designs.

I assume much of what we find in the stores these days is the result of uninspired, crank-them-out-as-fast-as-you-can far Eastern manufacturing. Once, designers grew up studying art and color theory, but now I’m thinking the prints come from the choices on some design software. Boring! No wonder I can hardly remember the last time I was tempted to buy something in a store. In fact, when department stores send me one of those “Get $10 worth of our stuff free” cards, I usually can’t find anything I want and come out empty-handed.

Young people have grown up in a world where everything looks the same. They have no idea of the choices we once had. It probably doesn’t matter, as so many of them are loaded down with student loan debt, and they pay so much in rent and to keep a smartphone going that they don’t have money left to go shopping anyways. I suppose the plus side is that it’s easy to live a minimalist lifestyle when you don’t see much you want.

But I think we all lose when beauty disappears.

Laura Ashley bedding

Vintage Laura Ashley bedding

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

A young relative recently expressed frustration to me about a gathering of friends she attended.

It appears that the other young women were discussing an expensive children’s clothing company that is in vogue right now; $60 dresses for little girls is the standard in their line. Then they began talking about women’s clothes and how easy it is to spend $500 or $600 a month just to look nice.

My relative and her husband are working toward becoming debt-free, but her decision to be a stay-at-home mom and the medical bills her family faced from their first child’s birth (their medical insurance didn’t cover all of it) have made it especially challenging to live on one income.

“We were sitting in this nice big house, and the couple who live there said it’s not big enough and they’re getting ready to buy another one. They’re our age! How do they do it?” she asked.

Being a bit older (ahem) and more experienced, I told her that things may not be what they seem. There’s the obvious answer, of course: that their friends have racked up credit card debt and mortgage debt and haven’t reached their limit yet, so they just keep piling it on.

But there’s another obvious-to-me answer: that many young people get a lot of help from their parents these days. Some families routinely finance their adult children so they can maintain the lifestyle to which they (and their parents) have been accustomed.

In their seminal book The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas Stanley and William Danko called this “economic outpatient care.” These young people can live quite well with their parents’ monthly assistance. It’s not until their parents run out of cash or die that the gravy train ends and the young people end up the proverbial creek without a paddle, unless their folks were independently wealthy and left them a nice chunk of change (which they’ll probably burn through before long).

So the young families who don’t get economic outpatient care from their parents are left to look at their peers who do (but don’t advertise the fact) and wonder why they’re doing so much better. The answer, of course, is that it’s all smoke and mirrors. Mummy and Daddy are financing the lifestyle, and probably calling a lot of the shots, too, because, as a wise person once said, “He who pays the piper, calls the tune.”

My young relative is fairly independent-minded; even if her parents could afford to float her a few grand every month, I doubt that she would like having them tell her what to do. Once she becomes debt-free, she and her spouse will enjoy calling their own shots, I’m sure. But in the meantime, if they can keep their eyes on their goal of financial freedom and avoid the green-eyed monster whenever it rears its ugly head, as it did at their friends’ house, they’ll be on their way to a much better life than their friends who are so dependent on their parents.

 

Where Does It Go?

We just got back from a trip to visit family two states away. After we unloaded the car, the kitchen (the room closest to the garage) was covered with stuff on every counter and all over the table.

I used to leave things like that until I had the energy to tackle them, but that was years ago. Now that I’m so used to living in a small house, I know we have to get that stuff put away ASAP. The best way to do that, I’ve learned, is to ask one question about each item: Where does it go? Then we take it there.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds if you haven’t designated places for everything. The hats and jackets go in the closet, but if you’ve stuffed other things in there, there will be no room for them. The empty drink cans go in the recycler, if you’ve got room in there. The dirty laundry goes straight to the basement, where the washer is hopefully not covered with stuff so you can run a load……you get the point.

This trip we brought back some family albums an elderly uncle gave to us. They’re sitting on the coffee table in the living room right now, but a place will have to be found for them; they can’t stay there. We need to come up with an answer to that question, don’t we?

“Where does it go?” is the question that will solve all your clutter problems, but only if you answer it, and fairly quickly.