Increasing numbers of baby boomers and millennials deal with the deaths of their aging parents. LNP’s Jennifer Kopf wrote in the June 2 Sunday LNP on how to deal with all the possessions left behind. Cleaning out the house can be a major undertaking when a loved one dies.
The emotional toll of losing a parent — even if that parent has lived a long life and death is expected — is a heavy one.
Even if you think you’ve prepared yourself for the inevitable, there’s still grief — and it’s sometimes overwhelming. But while you’re in mourning, there are the practical things that must be handled, including the clean-out.
And that can be a real headache, even if your beloved parent resided in a small apartment instead of a five-bedroom house.
Because, as Liz Fry, an owner of Beyond a Fork in the Road, a Lancaster County-based “senior moving solutions” company, said, “People don’t know how to manage all their stuff.”
Let’s face it. Just about all of us all are guilty. As Kopf wrote, there’s stuff that belongs to us, there’s stuff that we inherited (wanted or not), and there may be stuff that adult children leave behind when they move out.
Taken together, that’s a lot of stuff. To wade through all this while grieving can be a real challenge.
As Kopf wrote, Fry and others say “it’s a delicate process that has to take into account appraisals, memories, long-term family relationships, time constraints, promises and emotions — not to mention the wishes of the deceased.”
Local experts advise dividing it into three phases: organization you can undertake ahead of time; following a clear-out plan; and keeping basic legalities in mind.
Kopf’s article recommends:
— Recording all relevant financial, legal and practical information, keeping those records somewhere safe and letting your estate executor know the location. And write it down.
“One of the first things I do when I start with a client ... is I give them a book,” said Diane Levenson, of Diane’s Easy Solutions, “with pages to record: Who is your lawyer? Who is your accountant? Where is your life insurance? And, one of the most important things, what are your passwords for your internet accounts?”
That last question also involves billing that’s paid via computer as well as any automatic charges or deductions you incur or deliveries you receive, she said.
— Be realistic about what you’re choosing to keep around. For example, antiques and collectibles you paid top dollar for years ago may have fallen out of favor.
— Not all of the clearing out needs to involve heavy lifting or emotionally difficult decisions. “Tackle paperwork,” Levenson said.
— Break tasks down into what you can handle, Levenson advised. “A lot of people think they’ll start with the garage, but then the job is too big. Well, can you clean out a closet? If you can’t do that, can you do a drawer?”
— If you have specific bequests for after you die, make them in writing, and make sure they’re part of your will, Lancaster estate planning attorney Patti Spencer told LNP.
Then there are the questions to answer: Is it best to auction contents off with the house? Will the best value be found at a consignment shop, or a dealer?
“We have 70 of some kind of adult-living, some type of retirement community, in Lancaster County,” Fry said. “That means there’s a plethora of stuff coming into your auction houses, your consignment stores, your Goodwills. That means the supply is very high. That means auctioneers can be very picky about what they’re going to take.”
It can be tempting, as Kopf wrote, to try to keep everything or, conversely, want to just get rid of everything and move on.
“I cringe!” when families do the latter, Levenson said. “Family members will go in and (say), ‘Oh, this looks like trash.’ You can’t do that; you have to go through everything.
“I’ve found diamond jewelry in ashtrays with paper clips; I have found birth certificates and passports in books; I’ve found cash in any number of places.
Levenson suggests we consider these questions: “Are we keeping (this item) because it was Mom or Dad’s? Because we love it? Or are we keeping it out of guilt?”
Sometimes it can feel like a betrayal to give away an item, even if it doesn’t mean much to you, Levenson said.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to cleaning out when a parent dies. Families are the ones who should handle the decisions.
But we’d offer this suggestion: If you want to help your children down the road, do some clearing out while you’re able.
We’re not suggesting that you go the Marie Kondo route and purge your home of any item that doesn’t spark joy. But do you need that incomplete deck of playing cards and the broken bottle opener or anything else in the junk drawer in your kitchen? Are you ever going to wear that suit that last fit you a decade ago? Or the boots you wore just once because, as it turned out, your toes don’t enjoy being pinched?
Put the letters you’ll want your grandchildren to read someday in safe place, and give heirlooms to the people you want to have them. But discard the old receipts and ticket stubs.
Recycle what you can. Donate clothes, shoes, coats, household items that you rarely use but remain in good shape. Most of us have too much stuff — stuff that could help those who have too little.
Don’t leave for tomorrow — or for a decade — a task you can undertake today. Your descendants will thank you.