Sorting through and clearing out personal belongings after the death of a loved one can be very emotional. It can also cause a certain amount of discord on occasions.
When someone dies, the distribution of their estate is placed in the hands of an executor who will fulfil the instructions in the person’s will. Some estates will be of a size over £5,000 that requires a grant of probate before assets can be distributed.. However, it is often the smaller items, such as furniture, pictures, and pieces of jewellery, that cause problems because they tend to have more sentimental value.
Such personal items are called fittings or chattels, and the distribution of personal property after death is not affected by the will.
Possessions in death and probate law
The process you need to follow in dealing with a loved one’s estate depends on whether they made a Will. They might also have left additional written instructions in letters, known as ‘letters of wishes.’
In the Will, it should say who will be responsible for dealing with the estate. The executor is the person who finds all the assets, pays off any taxes and debts, and distributes any leftover money, possessions, and property according to the instructions left in the Will.
However, they need to get the court’s permission to deal with the estate before this happens. This is called a grant of probate. In Scotland, it’s called ‘confirmation of the estate.’
If there is no Will, the Will is invalid for some reason or doesn’t deal with their entire estate, there are intestacy laws that determine how the estate will be distributed.
Probate law doesn’t stipulate how personal items should be divided among beneficiaries unless they’ve been specifically named in the Will. Such things are called specific legacies. A mother, for example, might wish her eldest daughter to receive her wedding and engagement rings.
Once the death has been registered the next steps are to organise the funeral, locate any will and consider the care of any dependent children and even pets.
Securing and cleaning the home
It’s also essential that the deceased’s home and their valuables are properly secured. This is particularly important if the house is going to be empty for the foreseeable future. If there’s a security system, you could activate it. You might want to change the locks in case other people have the keys and might try to enter the property without permission.
It’s usually the responsibility of the estate executor to secure the home, but if they’re not available, take the necessary steps to lock windows and doors.
When it comes to cleaning the home, empty the fridge and throw out all liquids and perishable food. Next, walk through all the rooms and remove any accumulated rubbish. If the person died under traumatic conditions, you should consider using a professional company to clean the home thoroughly.
Sorting out the personal belongings of a loved one
This is often a tough task, but there’s not much to do until the executor of the Will has filed the document in probate court and the deceased’s final wishes have been determined. This usually happens a few weeks or months after the death.
First, the executor will notify the beneficiaries, after which there will likely be a long list of personal items that weren’t mentioned in the Will. These have to be sorted and organized.
Divide them into categories
However you decide to approach the task, it's crucial to stay organised. Choose a system and stick with it if you want to keep things in order. One effective method is to sort items into the following categories:
- Discard/throw away
Label up some large boxes and place the items in the appropriate boxes. You might want to add another box for any items you’re not sure what to do with.
Something else that’s important to remember is that you’re not obligated to hold on to every little thing. You probably don’t have the space anyway, and there’s nothing wrong with finding a new home for the items.
Consider collection appraisal
If your loved one was a collector, don’t feel obliged to keep every single item unless the collection is valuable. If it’s a collection of vintage stamps, rare books, or antique furniture, then you might want to consider getting a professional appraisal, especially if you plan on selling the items.
What paperwork to keep when someone dies
As you’re sorting through your loved one’s personal belongings, you’re probably going to come across lots of documents.
You’ll need to keep some documents such as house deeds, birth certificate, insurance information, and bank statements. Keep the originals and store them in protective containers. You can then shred or dispose of anything that might display your loved one’s personal details. This will protect against identity theft.
Make copies of photos
Any photos or videos you find may have personal sentimental value, but that value isn’t necessarily tied to the original copy. If possible, carefully copy photos and videos onto storage devices such as thumb drives.
Once you’ve got digital copies, you can share them with others and maybe create an online storage space that could serve as an online memorial site.
Managing social media and online accounts after a death
With so many people choosing to use technology, your loved one’s digital legacy is something else you need to consider. If your loved one left a Will, you could work with the executor to identify, cancel, and close any of their social media profiles and digital accounts. If you want to, you can announce the death of a loved one on social media.
Requesting items from their place of work
If your loved one was working when they died, you might want to contact their employer to request any personal belongings that may still be in their office or work desk. However, remember that you won’t be able to access files stored on their computer or keep equipment or tools they used if they belong to the company.
What to do with personal belongings after death
If there are explicit instructions in the Will that specify how your loved one’s personal possessions need to be dealt with, you’ll have to follow those instructions. For example, they might want them to be sold and the proceeds donated to charity. On the other hand, they might want everything to go to one beneficiary. You must determine what they wanted before attempting to deal with any of their belongings.
For any items not accounted for in the Will, you have several choices available to you.
There are companies that will clean out houses after death for a fixed fee. The price is usually a low one, but it does mean the family won’t have to go through the heartache.
Selling the items privately is another option - it is more complicated but the funds raised will usually be higher than a house clearance service.
Local charities are always grateful for any donations they receive, as long as they are good-quality items. Quite often, they’ll come and pick more oversized items up.
If your loved one had a valuable collection, such as coins, medals, or stamps, it might be worth putting them in a specialist auction for another collector to buy.
Distribution among family members
There may be other members of the family who would like to be offered certain pieces. Ultimately, the Executor’s decision is final, but it might be nice to take the feelings of others into account.
Channels of communication must be kept open with other family members throughout the process. However, conflict may sometimes arise over who gets what. Here are a few ideas that might help sort things out reasonably and hopefully peacefully.
- Take turns to pick items: This works if you can all be in the same place at the same time.
- Use coloured stickers: Family members place coloured stickers on the things they want to keep. If there are items with two stickers, they can be further debated later on.
- Get highly valuable items appraised: This will make distribution fairer.
- Copy what you can: Family photos and videos can be difficult to distribute fairly, but they’re very easy to copy and distribute digitally.
Perhaps the most challenging part of distributing personal belongings after death is feeling like you have to let go of many special memories with that person. While we suggest keeping some special items that have sentimental value, we have a few suggestions for you on other special ways to remember a loved one.