We’ve all heard the phrase “you can’t take it with you when you go.” These words become all too real when managing a loved one’s personal belongings after they’ve passed away.
Sorting through someone else’s lifetime possessions can be extremely stressful when it needs to be done quickly. Using a checklist can help ease some of the tension and keep you organized as you work through the process.
First Things First: Immediate Concerns
While most tasks can wait until after the funeral, there are some that need to be taken care of immediately. If possible, delegate some of them because trying to do it all yourself while planning a funeral can be overwhelming.
Take Care of Dependent Children
The surviving spouse usually takes care of a dependent child or children. Most parents use a will to name a legal guardian for their dependent children, so if both parents die at the same time, the guardian can officially take custody (depending on the court’s decision during probate).
Whoever takes care of the children immediately after a death must be able to provide a safe space and help them cope emotionally and physically with the loss. It may take a combined effort from family members and close friends to provide necessary support and care.
Tend to Pets
Many people see their pets as beloved members of the family, and pets will need immediate food, shelter, and veterinary care (if necessary). Ask family members, friends, or neighbors to look after animals if you can’t do it yourself to ensure that they aren’t forgotten in the days following a death.
Secure the Home
Make sure that the deceased’s home and valuables are properly secured, especially if the house will remain empty for the foreseeable future. Activate the security system if possible, and consider changing the locks as other people could have keys and may try to enter without permission. This includes family members who may feel entitled to “claim” items belonging to their loved one after they die. Protecting the home can prevent unofficial acquisitions and help reduce family conflict at the funeral.
The estate executor is usually responsible for securing the home, but if they’re not immediately available, you should take steps to lock all the windows and doors to prevent unauthorized entry. Place a hold on postal deliveries and check the mail every day (if possible) until it takes effect. Growing stacks of letters in the mailbox and/or packages at the front door are often signals that the house is vacant.
Throw Out Perishables
Clean out the refrigerator and throw out perishable food and liquids. Go through all the rooms in the house to clean out any accumulated trash. If the person died in the home under traumatic conditions, consider using a professional company to clean the home of potential biohazards or contaminants.
Next Steps: Sort Through Personal Belongings
Going through the personal belongings of a loved one after the funeral is never an easy task. If there is a will, wait until the executor files the document in probate court to determine the deceased’s final wishes (in terms of their personal property). This usually happens a few weeks or months after the death, and after the executor notifies the beneficiaries. There will likely be a long list of unmentioned personal items that should be sorted and organized.
Just as there is no “right” way to grieve, there is no “right” time to start going through your loved one’s personal possessions. It took a lifetime to gather these things, so you shouldn’t try to sort everything in one day. Sometimes, you don’t have a choice in the matter, and have to clear out the deceased’s private effects immediately.
Take your time if you can and don’t rush the process. Don’t be afraid to ask for help either, especially from other family members who can offer support and input.
Communicate with Family
Let other family members know when you’re ready to begin the cleaning process. They may have a sentimental interest in items you think hold little or no value, or they may want to share access to family heirlooms or special objects. Bear in mind that this undertaking may lead to conflict between family members, so consider inviting a mediator over for extra-tense moments.
Whether you’re cleaning out one room or several homes, staying organized is key. Decide on a system to keep things in order. A great method is using large boxes and labeling them “Keep,” “Recycle,” “Donate,” and “Discard/Throw Away.”
Even if you feel like storing everything in the “Keep” box, remember that you’re not obligated to hold on to every little thing. You likely don’t have the space, and there’s nothing wrong with donating or recycling pieces you have no use for. Don’t feel guilty for throwing away broken items either.
If you simply can’t decide what to do with some things, place them in a box labeled “Not Sure” and go through them at a later date.
Start with Easy Stuff
To prevent yourself from getting overwhelmed too quickly, sort through the easy stuff first. These can be things you’re not emotionally attached to, or plan to give to someone else. Making quick decisions about these items helps to build momentum for the rest of the cleaning process.
Sometimes you just can’t bear to give something away but don’t have the space for it. Take pictures of the item instead, creating a visual catalog of your loved one’s special possessions. This way, you can discard the item, knowing that the pictures will help you hold onto the memories.
If your loved one was a collector, don’t keep every single item in the collection. Select a couple of your favorite pieces and donate or discard the rest. If the collection is valuable (e.g. rare books, antique furniture, vintage stamps), consider getting a professional appraisal.
Shred Important Papers
As you sort through your loved one’s documents, keep original paperwork such as birth certificates, land deeds, and property titles. Shred and dispose of anything that displays the deceased’s personal details to protect against identity theft.
Don’t Forget Digital Assets
Managing the deceased’s digital legacy is an important part of managing personal assets. If your loved one had a will, work with the executor to identify, cancel, and/or close their social media profiles and digital accounts. Almost all internet businesses will request a copy of the death certificate to close online accounts.
Manage Work Things
Contact the deceased’s employer to request any personal belongings kept at the office. You won’t be allowed to access files stored on the computer or to keep equipment or tools the deceased used if these items belong to the company.
Outsource to the Professionals
If managing the personal possessions of your loved one becomes too stressful, consider outsourcing the task to a professional estate manager or house cleaner. They have the capacity to move or store large items and can help you finish the job quickly if time is of the essence.
Take Care of Yourself
Lastly, remember to take care of yourself as you sort through your loved one’s personal belongings. Whenever you decide to begin the cleaning process, go slow and don’t pressure yourself to make decisions right away. Coming to terms with a death is part of the grief journey, so be kind to yourself during this process.
Are you anxious about family disagreements after a death? Find out the best ways to manage family conflict when planning a funeral.Back to Knowledge Center