Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Lifehacker/GMG
Cleaning out a loved one’s home after their death hits the trifecta of misery: It’s a series of chores that can be emotionally, physically, and financially overwhelming. And what makes the whole task even worse is that it’s difficult to know where to start – should you throw out the beds first, then have nowhere to sleep while you’re working? Toss the pots and pans and rely on takeout for the duration?
The decisions around what to keep, donate, recycle, toss, or sell can be lengthy and depressing, especially for items that were treasures to your parent but not to you: It seems like a sin to chuck original artwork, or religious items, or someone’s beloved collections of figurines into the landfill – but what else are you going to do with it?
Fortunately, there are people who will hold your hand through every step of the process – professionals who specialize in “bereavement clean-outs”, or the lengthy and stressful task of emptying a loved one’s house after their death. I spoke to a couple of experts in the matter on the steps you need to take to sort through, and dispose of, your family member’s belongings after they die.
1. Look at the Will
It seems obvious, but read the will, says Matt Paxton of Legacy Navigator, a company helps families with estate clean-outs. “A will is not an opinion, it’s a fact. You don’t get to keep the piano just because you want it, even if you’re the one doing all the work.”
2. Get in Touch with an Estate Lawyer and an Accountant
Hopefully your parent already had an estate lawyer and an accountant. If not, ask around for local recommendations. (It has to be someone in your parents’ state.) If you’re settling the estate, you’ll need to get the ball rolling with an estate lawyer, and you’ll need to file taxes for the estate.
An accountant can help with this. As you clean, keep an inventory of anything of value, and if you anticipate the will being contested, make it a pretty detailed inventory. (The estate lawyer can advise you further on this.)
3. Set a Realistic Timeline
Paxton says his company estimates that one person can clean out a half a metre square (about the space of a dishwasher) per hour. That means you and one helper can deal with about 12 cubic metres per day. Use that maths to estimate your time and how much help you need.
Make a trip to a big-box store for contractor’s bags and cardboard boxes. You’ll probably need to go a couple of times once you get a handle on how much stuff there is.
4. Pick a Room
Deborah Goldstein, a professional organiser who specialises in hoarders and bereavement cleanouts, recommends working your way room to room rather than tackling the whole house at once. “You get a better sense of accomplishment when you see one room actually cleared.”
She suggest starting with a room that is storing mostly junk, like the garage or laundry. “There’s less emotional attachment to these spaces. Most people can make easy decisions here – there’s a lot of stuff with no sentimental value.”
5. Make Piles
As you go, make four piles or staging areas: one for stuff to go to the tip, one for donate/recycle, one for sell (if you’re so inclined) and one for consider keeping. “As you work through each room, you’re getting rid of the junk and you’re putting aside things to think about.
Most people start with a lot of things in the “things to think about” pile, but as they work, they go back and do different edits,” says Goldstein. A bereavement cleanout specialist, like Goldstein or Paxton, or a local auctioneer, can help you assess if there’s anything worth selling.
5.5. (Maybe Stay in a Hotel)
It can be emotionally taxing to stay in the house you’re cleaning out, especially if your relationship with the deceased was not ideal. “If it was really toxic relationship, I think a hotel is worth it,” says Goldstein, though of course she notes that that decision depends not only on your finances but also on the state of the house.
6. Draw Straws and Have An Hourly Show and Tell
If it’s not clear before your parent’s death who gets what items from the house, says Paxton, “literally draw straws as to who gets to pick first an item to keep.” He recommends, if you’re working with helpers, to work in the same room together at the same time – it minimizes suspicions that someone might be pocketing something – and to set aside a few minutes each hour to show the others something you’ve found and tell a little story about it.
Otherwise you’re picking up objects, reminiscing, and putting them down again. “If you don’t save your story [for that designated time per hour], you’ll never actually clean.”
7. Touch Everything. Literally Everything
Everyone I spoke to stressed that you have to check every pocket, every file cabinet, the toe of every shoe to find squirreled-away cash and valuables. “I’ve found diamond rings, safe-deposit box keys, cash,” says Goldstein. Says Paxton.
“Check all the pockets, check every medicine bottle, check the freezer, check the toilet tank. We find a lot of money.” His company will even run a metal detector over the backyard.
8. Deal With Paperwork As You Go
If you’re lucky, your parents were organised and had all their estate planning in place before they died, and that paperwork is neatly filed. But no matter what, you’re going to be handling every piece of paper in the house. Goldstein recommends designating one wall or area for paperwork and stashing it there as you clean out the rooms. Make piles by category.
9. If You’re the Executor, File What You Need to Settle the Estate
Regina Kiperman, an estate-planning attorney in New York, suggests getting as many copies of the death certificate as there are accounts to settle – this will help you keep track of each account and make for quick reference.
(Paxton says 20, but as they cost money, you might want to try to be more precise in your estimation.)
Then, as you clean, you need to keep birth certificates, passports, military records (if survivors might be entitled to benefits), recent bank statements, medical and pharma bills, any stock or bond certificates and life-insurance policies. Goldstein says, “You should be able to whittle this down to two portable file boxes.”
Shred everything else if it has identifiable information. Keep an eye on the mail through the next tax season to see if there are statements coming in that you didn’t know about. If you don’t know how to deal with computers or online accounts – like you don’t have the passwords – ask the estate lawyer for advice on how to proceed.
10. Haul Stuff Away
Paxton says his company tends to donate to local charities, like those that provide clothes to people getting out of prison, more than they do to the local Vinnies or Salvation Army, but the big charities will sometimes haul away furniture if it’s in good shape. Call ahead and see if they are able to take any of the bigger furniture too.
For hauling away big stuff, either Paxton’s company hauls away the debris, or, if he doesn’t have a local team he works with a local skip bin business from the area. If you need local assistance and/or advice, you can google “estate clean-out + your city” for businesses that specialize in this kind of job.
And take it easy on yourself. It’s an emotionally fraught time, even more so if you’re dealing with this with siblings or other family members. “Try to be understanding of your siblings,” says Paxton. “And at the end of the day, it’s just stuff. Don’t lose your family over it. I’ve seen families break up over Beanie Babies.” He pauses. “Oh, and another thing: Beanie Babies are not worth anything.”