If you have elderly parents, have you talked with them about the challenge of handling the “stuff” they will leave behind one day? In more than 33 years of working with families after death of a parent(s), this is an often overlooked part of their estate planning and can be most troubling.
Estate planning attention is usually focused on financial assets and the family home, while the task of disposing of personal effects — jewelry, household furnishings, collectibles, memorabilia, family photos, music, books and so on – is ignored. Parents often assume their children will “work it out”, but this can be wishful thinking. The “stuff” can be like land mines, buried beneath the surface ready to explode at unknown and unpredictable times and manners.
One’s “stuff” can represent a lifetime of memories, experiences, lessons, and values. Who can say what children value most – the money an item can bring if sold, or the feelings that it evokes. “One person’s junk is another person’s antique’, as the saying goes. For example, when my father died and my sister and I relocated my elderly mother to live near her, having the old chrome bread box that sat on our kitchen counter for over 50 years through my childhood and adolescence, was more important to me than the jewelry. That breadbox sits in my kitchen to this day, reminding me daily of where I came from. But the jewelry I got sits in a drawer.
There is also the job of locating all the “stuff”, organizing it, identifying what the family wants to keep, dividing it among family members or selling it, and just giving it away or disposing of it. How do you figure out who gets what? In one case, the family fought over an old dormitory style refrigerator and a bunch of stuff that had absolutely no monetary value. It took weeks of work – and extra legal fees – to create an elaborate system to divide the items fairly.
If your parents like to save everything for fear of throwing out something important, then months of time can be lost in selling the home as personal effects must be disposed of. Sometimes the task is delayed even longer as children agonize over the values of items they find. Should they be appraised by a professional to be safe? In the meantime, the house must be maintained and expenses paid.
Compounding the task of children in settling this aspect of a parent’s estate is the responsibility of securing the items. I have had cases where family members have access to the house, and items become unaccounted for.
To deal with these issues effectively, there are several steps families can take in the planning stage and then in the process of settling an estate after a parent’s death. I’ll discuss these next time.