What to do with The Stuff? An Estate Organizer's Advice

Today the Passage welcomes a visitor, Penny Schneider, The Estate Organizer.  

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.)

In the case of disputes, Penny notes that "the Will is paramount". Goods are either bequeathed to a designated heir, or form the residue of the estate, and if the Will specifies that those goods are to be liquidated and the proceeds distributed to the beneficiaries, that's what has to happen.

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.


Janice Riggs said…
Brilliant advice, and some excellent ideas. This is an area that's easy to neglect, and you leave chaos behind for your loved ones if you can't face up to a few hard decisions...
Thanks for thinking of this, and sharing it with us all,
Madame Là-bas said…
It is an excellent idea to use a professional and to deal with belongings while one is able. Otherwise, we may leave a legacy of hurt feelings and disappointment. So many people that I know store deceased parents' household effects for years. Thank you.
LauraH said…
I helped my widowed father dismantle his house and then, a few years later, acted as his executor. The first task, dealing with 'the stuff', was by far the hardest so I really feel for fellow readers who are faced with a house or apartment full of 'things'. Sadly, my parents and the parents of many friends have provided great examples of 'what not to do'. Having gone through all that I'm now very aware of the need to deal with my 'stuff' as I get older rather than leave it for others to sort out.

Surprisingly, after all the horror stories I'ld heard, acting as executor was not as onerous. Part of the credit is due to my father who left a very clear and sensible will, partly due to my siblings who let me get on with it and partly due to the bank where my father had his investments. My suggestions for executors are (1) read up on the duties - your family lawyer can provide you with a list or there is lots of info on line - and (2) deal with an expert at the head office of your bank if possible, not the local branch.

Thanks for bringing some great ideas to this difficult part of family life.
So many of us are facing these issues...My husband had to do the lions share of the work when his father passed away. He is still dealing with his mothers' affairs as she has Alzheimers and in a facility that offers 24 hour care. It is quite stressful.
I am not sure that I could hand over the reins to a 3rd party when Mother passes on, but we live in the same town as our family so it is easier and I am retired so I have the time as does my sister.
Duchesse said…
Janice: Agree and even when affairs are in order, not everyone will want what is left behind. When I walk through antiques or vintage stores, or occasionally attend auctions, I see how much is being divested.

Mme: My mother died 8 years ago and I still have some large silver pieces and a few chairs in storage. And nearly everyone I know who has lost their parents is either storing "stuff" or has intense feelings about who took what.

LauraH: I read that recent changes to the law make the executor's role more task-laden now, at least in many provinces. (Rachel's mother died in BC.) She and her husband were misinformed about a number of requirements by the bank branch, and had to escalate. Your advice to deal with the head office is wise.

hostess: Please re-read Penny's description of her role; family members do not "hand over the reins"- unless they don't wish or are unable to carry out any of the tasks. (As she said, she's "like a wedding planner".) Even those of us with time may need help, and you are lucky to have a family member in the same city.

materfamilias said…
Sterling service you're doing here by letting Penny speak to your readers. Like LauraH, the stress in my husband's family actually came with the earlier move, first to a condo, and then to assisted living. The two siblings who lived nearby resented doing so much of the work, although we offered to pay for services that would have sorted the furniture and belongings worth keeping -- consigning, selling, disposing, donating, etc. as well as offered to pay for the house to be painted before resale, for cleaning services, etc., etc. We didn't live in the same town and when we did visit we had multiple family responsibilities with our own kids as well as with my family. My husband helped as much as he could, but it was never enough. I can see a parallel service to Penny's being extremely valuable at that earlier stage, especially if it involved some mediation ;-)

We've learned valuable lessons from both our families, and we've begun some approaches that should make it easier for our kids some day. I would never have believed that a family once so close could be so catastrophically divided, but it's such a common story. Again, thank you so much for posting this, and thanks to Penny for the important work she does.
I loved that wild love seat!

As you've probably noted, many people here do treasure their oldtiques, but indeed combine them with other woods with plainer lines and lighter finishes, and often strip dark varnishes.

A friend in Brooklyn had to deal with the nightmare of parents who were not just packrats but hoarders... This is very hard while dealing with grieving a dead mum and a frail, institutionalised dad.

Off topic, but today is an utterly beautiful autumn day, and it will be even warmer tomorrow.
Nelson Bartley said…
So timely! My 92 year old mother just said "I guess I need to sort through the house". I just looked at her and sighed because it is such a huge job. She and 93 yr old dad are in assisted living and their entire house sits unlived in across the street from me. I'm not the executor but guess who the majority of this task will most likely fall on?
Duchesse said…
materfamilias: I think this is what Penny means by helping with downsizing, though at first I thought of it myself, (as the downsizer). But so often I have seen parents living with barely room to navigate because they moved all the stuff from a larger home into a smaller one, keeping it "for the kids", who privately rolled their eyes. I have a friend who vows to give away everything the week before he dies but I wonder how he's going to manage that.

lagatta: That can work- and I also have a friend who crammed all his mother's Napoléon III furniture into his modern house and it's just gawdawful. (His partner and kids think so too.) It takes an eye-and maybe the help of a pro!

Nelson Bartley: If you are both amenable to making a start, she would still be here to receive the thanks of those who receive her gifts. My mother gave away nearly all her antiques and family heirlooms by the time she was 95. She died at 99, and was hardly without furniture and mementos but I'd say 85% of what mattered to her had been already given. She gave me her rings under the gentle fiction that I was "safekeeping" them for her, and she wore them when I visited.
Oh god no, I wasn't talking about cramming things, Even a flat crammed with Nordic mid-century teak would be horrid.
Gretchen said…
My mother never wanted my brother and I to go through that family pain that resulted when my grandmother died, and certain family took everything. She vowed that we would be told, in the will, to go through everything together, no spouses, no kids, and decide between the two of us what we wanted, and then to get rid of everything else. Well, she's gone now, and my brother and father can't bear the thought of allowing me to sort through her clothes - not even the rest of the stuff - and get them off to Goodwill. I cannot imagine what it will be like when my father dies; it will likely be civil between my brother and I, but the organization part will be draining. It's all just stuff. With my own girls moving into their own places, I'm giving them whatever I can now to get it out of my house, and if they choose to dispose of it, that's fine too. I'd love to line up an estate organizer as part of my will, to help me plot out for them how to dispense/dispose of everything that remains that they don't want.
Beth said…
(I love Nordic mid-century teak!) Thanks for an excellent post, full of great advice. I am dreading the day, and determined to make things easier for our heirs.
Beth said…
(I love Nordic mid-century teak!) Thanks for an excellent post, full of great advice. I am dreading the day, and determined to make things easier for our heirs.
Duchesse said…
Gretchen: I have invited Penny to respond but I imagine she is busy working! However, you might note when you name your executor in your Will that you encourage him or her to use such services and that they are paid for by your estate; as Penny says, any reasonable service can be used by an executor. So, leave enough cash to pay for that! A professional estate organizer could give you an estimate.

People leave money for lavish celebration parties and pet maintenance, why not leave enough so your heirs do not have such onerous work?

lagatta: I know you weren't. Too often, when people inherit large pieces of furniture, they already have everything they need. Rachel gave a few items to her daughter, and the rest went to a charity store. (Her sister lives in Europe and was not about to ship things she would never use.)
LauraH said…
If I can re comment. Great idea to leave instructions about disposing of the 'stuff'. I think that gives the heirs permission to do the sensible thing and get some help without feeling some sort of guilt. I have tried to do this in a letter to my executor along with suggestions about where to donate specialized items such as books, etc. In most cases, no one you know will want your stuff but it can find a new home with a stranger so let it go. I find that idea very freeing.
Darla said…
My Mom died last Dec. at age 94. I'm the executor of her Revocable Living Trust. She thought she had everything in order. She did not. The Trust was confusing to me with lots of changes made over years and those changes not incorporated into the original but just added on separate pages. I decided to take the Trust to my atty and he said it was very "ambiguous". He had to contact the retired atty who wrote the trust and get statements of intent and we had to take the Trust to court to have a clear document. So my word of advice - have someone with knowledge read a completed Trust before you just assume it states your wishes. My Father died about 20 years ago and so I don't feel an obligation to be a Trustee for anyone else. Not a job I would undertake again.
Penny Schneider said…
Hello everyone, it's Penny here. The stories are all too true.

LauraH has a wonderful plan. This is sometimes referred to as a "letter of wishes" - private instructions for your executor about what to do. This piece of paper is not legally-enforceable, but is used as a guide. Still, if you have things that you don't often use, like jewellery, and have someone in mind, why not give the item(s) to them now (birthday present). This way you'll have the pleasure of seeing them enjoy it (and no probate fee). As for the big items, it can be a very stressful process for the owner to let go - be patient. Sometimes that's all anyone can do. If "stuff" is actually presenting a safety hazard (tripping, fire, access) get help from a professional organizer who specializes in this area.

Kathleen - thank you for inviting me into your world and thank you all for reading and sharing.
Duchesse said…
Penny: I could not have done this without you, and hearing even more stories, I hope everyone reads your blog or LinkedIn posts. We are simply not aware of the many details we all need to consider and take care of, whether as benefactors or heirs.

Darla: Oh, do I know about that. After my father died, my mother made major changes to her Will and thought, after engaging her longtime lawyer to amend it, she had everything spelled out. When she died, the bank's trust department thought there was an ambiguity. By that time, her lawyer had Alzheimers. A mess, expensive and time-consuming. So, I learned you can't always depend on the lawyer, either.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: I'd like to piggyback on your comment about indications for dispersing one's own things. First, if the community has a site like Freecycle, that is a great way to give things to persons who actually want them. I used it for downsizing, too. You actually meet the person who takes something- in my case, books, and their appreciation made the giving so different from dropping things in a donation box. (This of course assumes we are well enough to organize that.)

Second, people laughed at my aunt, who had stickers under the furniture and art, indicating who would receive what. The stickers helped her make a few switches as some of the original intended recipients died, and she did not have to go through the bother of changing her Will. Everyone knew about about Aunt A's method. She had a clause in her will requesting that "designations made for each item be honoured". She did not have fabulous art and the family was not greedy or contentious- it worked.

Rita said…
I always wonder about the real motives of those family members who prevent things moving because they "just can't bear the thought of ________ (insert appropriate task,such as going through the deceased's clothing, selling Mom's house, etc., etc.) I think they may be savoring the control!

On the subject of executors, my cousin told a story about a good friend who was an attorney who was selected by another friend to be the executor. After the man died, the attorney commented to my cousin that he wasn't going to charge the family anything for his services. After thinking about it, my cousin called the attorney and said, "Don't do this for free, you'll be sorry if you do." The attorney followed my cousin's advice, and later thanked my cousin many, many times, since their were major family feuds going on throughout the process.
Duchesse said…
Rita: I imagine many needs and motivations are in play, sometimes unconscious. A woman I know finally confronted her brother, executor of the last surviving parent's estate, after three years of such "just can't bear" behaviour. She invited him to lunch, but after, drove him to a lawyer's office (for which she had arranged an appointment). The lawyer advised him, in polite but firm terms, that he was outside acceptable limits as an executor, and could be removed from the role. That spurred action and he also accepted help in dealing with some more complicated matters concerning the estate.

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