After someone does, someone needs to clean out their house. Understandably, losing someone is always a painful experience. More so that while you are still mourning for your loss, you have to deal with the demanding task of cleaning out the house. This can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. Maybe you have created a to-do-list, but you don’t know where to begin. You are already tired, even if you haven’t even started.
If you come across this article, you might have lost someone and are left to handle the cleaning out process. I am deeply sorry for your loss. I know that estate clean-out can be challenging and, at times, frustrating, but I want to help and make it easier and less stressful for you.
The 4S of estate clean-out are: Secure, Search, Sort, and Settle.
Here is a quick guide that will help you in the process of cleaning out the house after someone dies.
1. Secure the House
Change the Locks. Because you don’t know how many people were given the keys and access to the house, you can’t just go and collect the spare keys. To ensure that all belongings are safe and secure, you must change the locks. Do this as soon as possible after the death of your loved one. The house must be secured while you are busy with the preparation of the funeral or while you are still deciding on how to move forward with the property.
Request to forward mail. Notify the post office to forward all mails to your home or office address. Mails may contain important letters that may need immediate action from you. This is also necessary for you to keep track of all the utility bills. While you want to stop some services like cable subscription, other services need to continue. Keep paying the bills for the utilities.
Give pets a home. Part of securing the house is securing a home for the pets. They, too, are grieving; please make sure they have a new home to comfort them. If you can’t keep them for some reason or take care of them while busy with all the preparations, find a family that will do that for them.
2. Search for important documents and other valuables
Other people would hire an estate clean-out company to avoid going through the hassle of sorting through things. If you decide to hire help in the clean-out process, it is best to first search for the financial and legal documents and other valuables first. We don’t want these documents to be in the hand of persons we don’t trust. Some of these documents are very important, especially during the estate settlement process. You have to ensure that all items not just those with financial but also sentimental value is safely secured while cleaning out the house after someone dies. These documents include the following:
a. Legal documents
– Real Estate Deeds and Titles for properties that are owned by the deceased;
– Mortgage Deed if the property is mortgaged. You have to notify the mortgage company of the death of the property owner and settle the estate with them before they attempt to foreclose the property;
– Car registrations; and
– Will. If the deceased left a last will and testament, make sure to keep the copy in a secure place.
b. Commercial or financial documents
– Life, Property, and Other Insurance Policies and Statements – notify insurance companies of the face of death
– Bank and brokerage account statements
– Stocks and Bond Certificates
– 401 (k) records
– Tax returns and receipts
– Credit card statements
– Utility bills
c. Other important documents such as birth certificates, social security cards, military records (the deceased or its heirs may be entitled to grants or benefits), etc.
d. Other Valuables – Some people keep a stash of cash, pieces of jewelry, and other precious items. You can check on every corner, nook, or possible places where you think your loved one may have kept these items.
e. Documents that may not have financial value but are priceless and have sentimental value to family members. The deceased may have left a poem, a writing masterpiece, or simply a letter for a family member or a friend. Look for them, for sure they have sentimental values. You also search for photos, memorabilia, scrapbooks, and the like. Keeping them is a good way to remember the deceased and introduce him/her to grandchildren or other family members who never had the chance to meet the deceased. This way, his/her memory remains with you and with the family.
Most documents are stored physically in print, while others are digitally in computer hard drives. Also look for the digitally-stored documents. Another important thing to look for is a list of passwords and usernames for online accounts. Some people, especially our old loved ones, would write down their access credentials for online banking to aid their frail memory. While cleaning out the house after someone dies, look for it on their notes, notebooks, cellphones, and even computers where they might have written or saved these passwords and user IDs.
Identify what to keep and what to destroy. You have to identify documents that you need to keep including stock certificates, bank statements, and those that you need as paperwork during the estate settlement. Documents that are not needed but contains personal or identifiable information of the deceased must be destroyed or shredded to avoid it from reaching the hand of other people and be subjected to identity theft. This may include credit card statements, utility bills, and documents that contain the social security details of the deceased.
3. Sort through all the belongings
Things to consider before sorting. It is important to note that if the deceased left a will, you have to carefully read through the will first before you start sorting through the belongings and decide what property goes to who or how do you proceed with dividing the estate. Some wills are pretty straightforward, while others are not. While cleaning out the house after someone dies, you may need to consult an estate lawyer to assist you with this. If the deceased did not leave a will, you can sort through all the things left by the deceased.
Sort Out Stuff. There are some items that you or your relatives want to keep or dispose of. It is best for you to schedule a day to gather all your relatives in order for all of you to go through all the stuff and belongings together. I suggest keeping it within the immediate family only, save those who are actually close to the deceased. When sorting, you can maintain four categories:
a. Stuff you want to keep. Ask the family members to list the things they wish to have from the estate. This can work well if all members are in agreement. If not, you might need to bring in an outside mediator.
b. Stuff that is of value and can be sold. There are items that are still of value like pieces of furniture, vinyl records, and jewelry. You can organize a garage sale for these items. The proceeds would be helpful in case there are taxes that needs to be paid for the estate.
c. Stuff you want to donate. While cleaning out, you may realize that there’s way too much stuff. Others are still useful but of little to no value to you. A good example of this are the clothes of the deceased. You can donate them to charities, goodwill, or thrift store; and
d. Stuff that goes in the dumpster. Some things are worn-out or damaged beyond repair and donating them may not be a good idea as they are useless. You should let these things go.
When sorting through stuff while cleaning out the house after someone dies, take time to also check on coat pockets, the back of paintings or picture frames, file cabinets, under the bed, or even toilet tanks. People tend to hide valuable things in unlikely places.
Keep an Inventory. While you’re at it, maintain a detailed list or inventory of all the valuable properties. Also include the properties evidenced by the documents you found in step 2. This will come in handy during the settlement of the estate.
Take it one room at a time. If you don’t hire help, sorting through is a tedious process. You might be overwhelmed by the number of stuff you need to sort. Take it easy. Breath and take it one room at a time.
Avoid Tension. While the members of the family are together in one place, take this as an opportunity to discuss how to move forward if there’s still unfinished business like whether or not to sell the house and other valuable properties of the deceased and how to divide them among the family members. Tension among the family members sometimes happens. Don’t spend too much time and energy arguing with each other. In case there would be disagreements as to who should take possession of a certain item and compromise is not achieved, it is wise to seek help from outside mediators or estate lawyers. This is to avoid putting a strain on the relationship which is more valuable than any material things. Everyone should be willing to submit to outside mediators or lawyers to resolve whatever differences they have.
Make the necessary repairs. Now that the house is all cleaned-out, it is time to decide whether or not to sell it. Either way, you need to make the necessary repairs for the preservation of the house. If you decide to sell it, make sure that the house is in saleable condition.
4. Settle the estate and seek professional help
Settlement of the estate is inevitable especially for those that involve a substantial amount of properties like furniture, pieces of jewelry, stocks and bond certificates, house and lot, etc. All the procedures and paper works can be overwhelming. You are fortunate if the deceased left with an estate planning in place. All you have to do to keep the ball rolling is contact the lawyer and inform him/her of the fact of death. The lawyer will take it from there.
If the deceased left a last will and testament, it must be probated unless the value of the estate is below $30,000, in which case it only needs to be administered. In case the will is contested, the detailed inventory of all the properties mentioned above will be very useful. On the other hand, if the deceased died without a will and there are disagreements among the heirs as to the allocation of the property, the law will determine how the property allocation. In each situation, seeking legal help would be ideal. Hiring an estate lawyer would be a great help not just in estate settlement but also in resolving the conflict among the family members.
You also need to seek an accountant’s assistance because there are taxes to be filed for the estate. You may handle the filing but it would be less stressful on your part if you let the professionals handle them to avoid mistakes and troubles in the future.
If there’s a need to sell or liquidate an estate, you have to approach an estate liquidator. They professionally appraise the property and sell the entire estate for the most money possible.
The task that is physically demanding is sorting through the belongings. There are companies that offer estate clean-out services to help you in sorting through the stuff and emptying the house.
Remember that while cleaning out the house after someone dies is difficult, you are not alone. Talking to family members or friends who went through the same ordeal would be liberating. Take time to grieve. Don’t go through the hassle of the estate clean-out process by yourself. This is a guide that, hopefully, helps you through the process. But if you don’t have the time to do all these things, hire help and let them do all the hard work for you.