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.

Yes, Dear, We Did Buy This Once Before

 

grocery cart

This jumped out at me from among the hundreds of photos used to advertise a local estate sale online.

I subscribe to emails from a few local estate sale agents because I love to go to estate sales. I try not to buy anything that will clutter up our little house, but there are certain things I need or want and I find that older items are often much better made than modern ones. For instance, I buy almost all of our linens and towels at estate sales, because I love getting vintage linens and towels, often still in the package, at a fraction of the price of modern linens and towels. They hold up forever!

That said, I wanted this specific toy grocery cart because there is a certain adorable little girl who is just learning to walk, and I want her to have this toy to play with. Many years ago, we bought a grocery cart just like this one for her mother’s first birthday. We got rid of it after our youngest child outgrew it.

My husband doesn’t like the rare occasions when I buy something we used to own. His logical thought is, “Why did we get rid of it in the first place if we were just going to buy another one?”

My response is, would you have preferred to trip over it all these years, or have it take up valuable storage space, say in a storage unit where it would pick up that funky odor that outdoor storage units seem to create on stored items?

One of the advantages of the Internet is that you can find just about anything you might want to buy, even if it’s old or dated. So you can get rid of most things knowing that if you do ever need them again, you can buy them online. In the meantime, your surroundings remain uncluttered. Works for me!

Turning Clutter Into Cash

When I get rid of clutter, I want to be rid of it, to not see it again, sometimes because I’m afraid I’ll change my mind, and other times because I just want to consider my decluttering effort a job that’s done and can be checked off my list.

But I did invest in all those things at one point, and I can see why it would be wise to sell some of the things I’ve decided to give up instead of just donating them wherever. This article about turning clutter into cash has some great ideas. Will I do it next time? We’ll see! How about you? Have you done this before, and was it worth the effort?

She Just Keeps Stacking

I have a relative who easily qualifies as a hoarder. She has stuff everywhere: stacked up against furniture, stacked on the counters, stacked in closets. She keeps all four bedroom doors closed when we come over; I can guess why. Behind her shower curtain (yes, I peeked) is a stack of wet towels piled as high as my hip.

That word stacked is significant here. She has run out of places to put things so she just stacks them wherever she can. I find it very alarming. I think it sets off my claustrophobia to see so much stuff at one time, all those stacks.

Once when we were visiting, a bunch of stuff suddenly fell off the top of a bookcase, startling everyone. She was embarrassed, and I felt bad for her. That was a few years ago, and there is still a stack on that bookcase.

Back when I had a big house and lots of kids, and lots of their clutter in addition to my own, I was not a stacker. My counters were fairly clear, my end tables uncluttered, and my bookcases topped by one or two decorative items. You would never know that I had a lot of stuff because it was all in my basement. I regularly cleared out the living areas, but having no time to go through everything, just put it all in the basement and the crawl space.

This worked fine until we suddenly sold our house and had less than a month to get out. There was no time to go through anything, much less everything. We lugged it all out of the basement, into trucks, and off to storage, then spent the next couple of years going through it, and eventually selling or donating the lions’ share of it.

It’s not as though I forgot all that stuff was down there. In fact, I used to dream about burning everything in the basement so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. The problem was that I knew about 10% of the stuff was either important papers or treasured keepsakes. I just never had time to find those things until I was forced to.

This is the problem with my relative. She is not a particularly busy person; she doesn’t work and her kids are grown. She just hasn’t been forced to deal with her clutter. And so she continues to stack it to the ceiling. *Shudder*