Here's an excerpt from my new book, How to Clean Out Your Parent's House (Without Filling Up Your Own):
Going through a parent’s estate is a minefield for families. At a time when family members are at their most emotional and vulnerable, they have to make decisions that can cause all sorts of dissension and stress… unless their late parent left specific instructions regarding who gets their belongings. In the majority of cases, that didn’t happen.
So most families have the job of fairly and amicably working out who gets what. There are some good procedures for doing this, and we’ll get to them in a moment. But first, let’s look at some of the bombs that may go off as we tiptoe our way through this minefield:
Greed: Unfortunately, death triggers the greed gene in some people. You may be surprised at who gets greedy amongst your own clan. It might even be you.
Denial: One of the stages of grief, denial during the disposition of the estate takes the form of someone not wanting to disturb the estate: not now or next week, or ever. (Afterwards, this person often wants to take home all the trash and everything else no one wants, in an effort to “save what’s left of the estate.”)
Control: One or more family members try to take control of the proceedings, even if they have no claim for doing so.
Laziness: As the scope of the job becomes apparent, some family members decide they’re not up for it, and leave. But they’ll expect checks for their share of the proceeds just the same. In a similar vein, it’s often a family member who can’t or won’t go through the estate (or research, sell and ship any of it) that thinks it’s all too valuable to just give away.
Regression: Seeing parents’ possessions often triggers childhood memories, and childhood rivalries as well. Adults who are only a few years apart suddenly start behaving like big sister and little sister, complete with bossiness and whining.
Impatience: One or more family members who are understandably eager to get back to their own lives decide to just pitch everything in order to save time. This doesn’t go over well with those who are more sentimental, or those who know there are items of monetary value in the estate.
Vendettas: Old sibling rivalries and disagreements flare up, resulting in those with vendettas taking anything the subjects of their ire might want, even if they don’t like it, just so the “undeserving” don’t get it.
(Only children, are you beginning to realize the plus side of your situation yet?)
If the family is a blended family, complications abound. And of course, the estate is often larger because it may include some or all of the first spouse’s belongings as well as the second spouse’s.
So, how do we traverse such a minefield? Some ground rules are in order:
No one removes anything from the estate without the other heirs’ consent. (It’s the executor’s job to enforce this rule.)
Choose a date for going through the estate that works for every single heir.
Stay calm if a fight breaks out.
Have a mediator present if you expect trouble. A trusted and loved extended family member is often the best choice, but if that’s not an option, you can always hire someone. (Find a mediator in your state at www.mediate.com.)
The presence of your parent’s attorney will be helpful if the estate is especially valuable, but expect him/her to charge the estate for the time this takes.
As mentioned earlier, restrict the meeting to heirs only. (Naturally, heirs should consider the desires of their own families when they’re choosing items. They can even send photos and texts to gauge interest in specific objects.)
Don’t allow sudden and immediate disposal of the estate. One relative may be content with keeping only their memories and urges everyone else to quickly pitch the estate, but doing so might leave others in shock and regret that they didn’t take the time to go through it. Everything must be done fairly, even though it will take more time. Besides, someone in a rush could end up getting rid of something very valuable. Convince them to hire an appraiser, which will buy time for the group to go through things.
Methods of Division Among Heirs
The challenge of dividing belongings (especially valuables) is that whether they’re worth more in cash, memories or both, many items are often wanted by more than one person.
In an ideal world, a parent already gave items to those they wanted to have them or made a list of items going to specific people, along with an explanation of why they made the choices they did. But that doesn’t usually happen. What’s more common is when foggy elderly people verbally promise one item to more than one person, resulting in conflict between heirs, sooner or later.
If you’re dealing with a living estate and want to eliminate future conflicts, you may be tempted to ask your parent to assign items to their heirs now and explain their choices. But that might be too much pressure for them, or they may no longer be mentally capable of doing so.
Whether it’s a living or inherited estate, when dividing your parent’s belongings, you’ll need to at least try to prevent fights among heirs. While it’s not always possible to be perfectly fair, everyone should try to keep everything above board and to aim for fairness.
Here are 14 methods for dividing estates that have worked for other families. Choose whichever ones fit your situation best:
1) You Bought It, You Take It Back
Let everyone take back anything they gave to your parent. This includes birthday, anniversary and holiday gifts, plus anything they made for them. If they don’t want it back, it becomes part of the estate that others may want, or it can later be sold.
2) Take Turns
Heirs take turns choosing one item each until everyone has at least a few things they want. Order of choice can be based on birth order, by drawing straws or by throwing dice. This works especially well if the estate contains items that have more sentimental value than monetary value.
3) Take a Chance
Each time two or more heirs want an item, settle it by drawing cards (high card wins) or by throwing dice (highest total wins).
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