I invited Penny to address a topic I hear continually discussed among my friends: What Are We Going to Do with Mom and Dad's Stuff? This is always fraught. They say, "Being the executor is a full-time job!", "My sister is in tears because Dad didn't say the piano is hers", or, "It's all just too painful." One friend's parents' home remains untouched since their deaths four years ago because her sister, the other heir, cannot face the tasks.
Penny is devoted to such matters, which seems to me an almost saintly endeavour.
First, a little background about what she does: "Estate Organizing is a fairly new idea; people come to the work from various backgrounds. I am a trained Professional Organizer and will receive my Trust and Estate Practitioner designation later this year. I can assist an executor through the entire process—from gathering documents for probate, assembling the estate inventory, and organizing estate administration and distributions to beneficiaries.
I once described my work as "sort of a wedding planner for estates". My clients are either executors or family members trying to sort out the muddle left behind. A good estate organizer will definitely reduce overall stress and the amount of time getting things done."
Penny agreed to answer several questions about the possessions that form part of most estates. My own comments are in italics.
There the family sits with the folks' stuff piled high. How do you help them decide what's worth keeping?
"There's no easy answer since there are two types of value: monetary and sentimental. I discuss why someone believes something should be kept, particularly if that person doesn't want physical possession of the item.
Does someone want to keep something because of the price she thinks it will bring, or does it represent an emotional connection? Sometimes it's both, and when these ideas collide, you are really dealing with guilt, not value.
If you believe something is valuable because Mom told you it was expensive, you may be surprised to find it isn't now. Value is sometimes a function of fashion, place and time.
Victorian-era mahogany or oak furniture was popular several decades ago, but now it's difficult to sell or even give away. Occasionally you'll see an updated scroll-arm sofa or painted cabinet in a decorating magazine, but that's it.
(I agree with Penny, and also have noticed that young adults, for whom buying furniture is so costly, sometimes pick up out-of-style settees for a song and then recover them, like this:)
Today's woods are lighter in colour and weight, with sleek lines and little ornamentation. I'm not saying antiques are not valuable, but you have to know what you have and then if and where you can sell it. If you don't love it for what it is or plan to use it in your home, then sell it—either by auction or other means—and remember that not all items will sell.
Dad's stamp collection may not contain rare or in-demand stamps, but you remember the happy hours you spent with him working on the collection, learning about the world. That's invaluable and you'll probably want to keep those albums.
If you truly want photo albums or sentimental objects, keep them. These are often the items that cause the most difficulty because they are not easily divisible. Photos can be scanned so that everyone has a copy, but you will still need to decide who keeps the originals.
When the beneficiaries don't want items, I clear them through an estate auction (like MaxSold) or, if the client prefers, I deliver them to a charity such as The Salvation Army, ReStore or Furniture Bank.
How do you help a family adjust their expectations regarding what the inherited goods are worth?
If there's any argument, the family should use an accredited personal property appraiser. The result may not be the amount someone was hoping for, but the opinion will be based on current trends and values realized.
Another way to asses value is to do a little research on the internet, and look only at items that have actually sold. The asking price is irrelevant."
(A friend who owns a high-end antique shop tells me not two days go by without someone inquiring if she is interested in estate goods. She declines unless a piece is extremely desirable and then will only take it on commission. And I saw a sign in another antique shop: The Only One Interested In What Grandma Had Was Grandpa.)
If there is no plan for liquidation, the executor can determine what to do with the residue, providing he or she acts within the terms of the Will. Options include holding an in-house auction using Monopoly money for cash, using a lottery, or providing a list of items and asking beneficiaries to rank each by interest. "
(Then there is the Sherry System, in which my friend Rachel and her sister Riva opened a bottle of sherry, spread out their mother's mass of jewellery on the carpet, and took turns choosing.)
Penny and professionals like her can enter the estate process at any point, though, as she notes, "Earlier is better, so that tax and other deadlines are not missed". Executors are allowed to get help from accountants, lawyers, or anyone that "a prudent person" might hire, such as gardeners, property-maintenance companies and professional organizers. The executor pays initially and then is reimbursed by the estate.
Penny's conclusion might convince anyone wondering whether she should place that call: "It's much better to ask for help than to drown in paperwork, and then become open to liability for not doing the job properly."
(Several of my friends swear they will never accept an executor role again. Rachel's husband spent a solid year dealing with the red tape, and he is a retired economist who understands this area. And let's structure our own Wills to reduce work and stress for heirs; several hours of a lawyer or notary's services can save heirs months of headaches.)
Thank you, Penny, for both your advice and a glimpse into a fascinating career!
Readers can reach Penny at Penny Schneider, The Estate Organizer. If you are on Linked In, follow Penny to receive her informative semi-monthly articles, or read them on her WordPress blog, here.