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.

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.

 

 

 

New Decluttering Book on the Way

I’m afraid my blogging has suffered because I’ve been so busy working on my new book, which I’m excited to say is almost finished. It’s in the final editing stage right now, so it won’t be much longer before it’s published.

Like my other books, it’s related to decluttering. Until you go through the process yourself, I don’t think you can truly understand just how liberating it is to get rid of things you don’t really need. My goal is to help others understand just how wonderful it feels to be free of too much stuff, and to live in an uncluttered home.

In a culture where accumulation of stuff is a sign of prosperity, it seems like someone has to become overwhelmed with their clutter and sometimes even forced to downsize before they consider lightening their load.

So they begin to declutter their homes, but get stalled out in the middle of the process. There’s a common reason for that; the solution is the subject of my new book. So stay tuned!

 

The Boring Sister Wins This Round

My sister is getting ready to sell her 6-bedroom mansion and downsize to a two-bedroom condo. For most people, this would mean spending weeks or even months going through everything, deciding what to donate, what to sell, what to pitch and what to allow in the new place. That’s how it was for me when I moved from our 5-bedroom house to a tiny ranch.

But that won’t happen to my sister. She has plenty of furniture in the home she’s about to sell, but she’ll sell most, if not all of it, without a backwards glance. As for the personal belongings, well, she doesn’t have that many.

You see, my sister is the opposite of a hoarder; she rarely keeps anything. This was predictable way back when we were kids sharing a bedroom. Her twin bed was always neatly made, with just one cute little doll or stuffed animal on the pillow as a decoration. Meanwhile, my bed had at least half-a-dozen dolls on it.

Her side of the dresser held a little ballerina statue and a hair brush. My side was covered with belongings and mementos of all sorts, starting at the imaginary line in the center and running out to the very edge. She often looked at my side of the dresser and said, “You’re such a slob!”

I disagreed; I just loved all my stuff, and I had lots of interests, which automatically translates into lots of stuff.

As a budding writer, I regularly used a toy typewriter I got for Christmas. It was parked on a card table in the corner of our room that I used it as a desk. Like most writers, I was also an avid reader; my Nancy Drew collection took up most of the space on our little bookshelf.

Of course, I had other toys besides the dolls on my bed. I had lots of Barbie dolls so they could talk to each other, and naturally they had lots of clothes, and they needed a furnished Barbie house, which I also had. Then there was my love of sewing, which let me to collect fabric remnants, sewing tools and a collection of patterns.

Meanwhile, my sister had very few belongings because she had very few interests. I don’t remember what she did back then besides fight with me over the sorry state of my side of the room. I do recall that she took ballet lessons, but other than that I think she mostly watched television. To her complaints about my being a slob, I usually retorted that she was boring.

She still is, to be honest. But she’s got the edge on me now, because her move from the mansion to the condo is going to be the smoothest downsizing ever, I just know it.

You Love It Now, But…

In the early 1980s, my husband and I bought a lovely Oriental rug that graced our dining room for many years. It was a big purchase for us, back when we had two incomes and no kids, and we really loved that rug.

Yesterday he asked me whatever happened to that rug, and I couldn’t remember. We bought it for our first house, but it didn’t really have a place in our second house, which was fully carpeted, and so we put it in the basement, and then…what? We must have gotten rid of it during our big downsizing ten years ago, but neither of us remember what we did with it.

It’s funny how you can have possessions that you love a lot, that you don’t think you’ll ever get rid of, but then you do, and over time you forget what even happened to them. This is an important point to realize and remember when you need to declutter your home, because you’re forced to, like we were, or because it just really needs to be done, and you’re having a hard time letting go of things.

The truly important things in your life are people, not things. Everything else is expendable, and someday you won’t even remember what you did with most of your stuff. I wish I’d known that when I was younger; decluttering wouldn’t have been such an enormous, time-consuming project!

Photos and Memories

Today a catalog arrived in the mail. It was filled with nostalgic items for people of a certain age…like me. When I got to the page where you can buy all sorts of candy that was available when I was a child, the color photos of the different packages of candy brought back good memories.

And that reminded me of what I did when we downsized and gave up so many of our belongings: I took photos of the items I loved but couldn’t keep. When I look at those photos, all the memories linked to those items come flooding back, and it’s lovely.

So if you dread decluttering because you have a hard time letting go of sentimental items, remember you can just whip out your phone and take a photo of each beloved item. You don’t have to hold something in your hand to bring back memories: a photo will do, and it takes up a lot less room.