Clearing out a loved one’s personal possessions

Guy Pierce / 28 January 2016

Clearing out the personal belongings after a loved one's death is emotional and can cause discord. But there are ways to minimize this painful process.



After a loved one has died, the distribution of their estate is placed in the hands of the executor. Once probate has been granted, assets can be distributed in accordance with the terms of the will.

However, where problems may arise is over smaller items – pieces of jewellery, furniture, pictures, etc; personal items that perhaps have as much - or more - sentimental value than monetary.

These personal items are called chattels or fittings; basically, anything that is moveable, from a picture on a wall (but not the wall) to a fridge or a car. Even pets are included in this.

While grant of probate is required for an executor to act on major financial issues, the distribution of chattels is not affected. This can go ahead immediately after the death.

In a perfect world, all will go smoothly.

However, sometimes the fall-out between relatives over items left in the estate can cause long-lasting – even permanent – grievances.

Related: Sorting through the belongings after a bereavement

How to avoid problems

Planning ahead

Make a will

One cannot overstate the importance of making a will. Intestacy can be a nightmare for those left to deal with the estate.

But planning for the distribution of chattels is important too, as people can fall out over the most trivial things.

When you are writing your will, give consideration to personal effects. You may not place much store on them yourself, but relatives and/or friends may well do.

If there is one particular person you would like a specific item to go to, then add this to the will. Let that person know and give them the reasons why you would like them to have it.

A problem may lie in that you know someone else may also want that item. To save any unpleasantness, let them know your wishes and the reasons for them.

In the end, it’s your decision to make and you may feel that no explanation is necessary. However, if there’s a possibility of any rancour then oil on troubled waters is no bad thing.

Related: The importance of making a will

Talk to the beneficiaries

Consider discussing with your children what they would like to keep after your death.

If you wish to tell them the terms of your will, fine, but this is a time to sort out the smaller items and bequests.

If you think they might be upset, say that you’re thinking of having a clear-out and you’d like to go through stuff with them.

Allow them to choose what they’d like. And if there is any area of dispute you’re there to, hopefully, resolve the matter. You could even mark the items with a discrete sticker to show who is getting what.

Make the decision-making as light as you can. Invite your children over for a cup of tea, perhaps, to talk the matter through. It’s not being morbid, it’s being sensible and practical.

The aim is promote harmony after your death, to best avoid discord over property.

For example, if you have a valuable collection, coins or stamps, perhaps, that is of no interest to them, this is a good time for you to decide what should happen to it. You’re the expert. Give them an idea of its value (if any) and advise them what to do with it when you’re gone.

Downsizing

If you’re downsizing, or simply no longer have no interest in an item, why not pass items on now? In that way, the item will be seen in a positive light, rather than something associated with your passing.

If it’s a piece of jewellery you’ll never wear again, or furniture that you’re tired of or won’t fit your new place, let it go.

Remember, once you have parted with it, you have no control over it. Don’t be offended if that person doesn’t want it, or decides to sell it or give it away themselves.

Related: Top tips for downsizing your home

After a death

Make an inventory

Ideally, set a date for clearing out the home. If you can do it with your siblings, so much the better.

Have a plan for the day worked out. Do one room at a time, together. No ‘I’ll do upstairs, you do down’. If something should go missing and you are accused of taking it, you have no witness for your defence.

If there is any item more than one of you (seriously) wants, then agree to set it to one side so that you can discuss it later. Try not to disagree over the first item you come across.

If you believe an item has a significant value, then agree to have it valued by an expert in that field. Once the value has been agreed, then it is down to you and other interested parties how best to deal with the matter.

Does one person take it and give the other parties your share in cash? Does one person take it in a trade-off for other items? If you can’t agree, do you simply sell it and split the price you get for it?

Related: Sorting through the belongings after a bereavement

Keep a receipt book

Agree with family members how the proceeds are to be divided before you sell anything.

If you suspect that there may be cause for dispute over any items, then inform all interested parties of your plans.

Before you dispose of clothing, for example, ask if anyone has any item that they wish to keep for sentimental reasons. Arrange for that to be put aside.

If you intend to sell through a vintage store or place on eBay, then log the items and ensure you keep receipts for them as proof of sale.

If you’re selling through a car boot sale, it’s unlikely that you’ll make much profit, but do tell relatives of your intentions if you think they might kick up a fuss.

This goes for white goods, too – fridges, washing machines, TVs. Keep a record of what you received for them.

Insurance

Check with your insurance company as how you are covered, if at all, for damages that might occur when you are clearing the deceased’s house. You could tear a painting or damage some furniture. Can you take out cover?

What to do if something goes missing

If you suspect that someone has taken something without telling you, do not immediately start flinging accusations around. ‘Has anyone seen that china plate?’ or ‘I don’t suppose you’ve put that picture somewhere?’ is a far better approach than saying something everyone may regret later.

This is still an emotional time and sensibilities will still be delicate.

If your suspicions are proved or a person admits that they took something because they wanted it (and what are you going to do about it?) then you do have recourse to a solicitor. Before doing so, find out why they took it. It may be reasonable explanation, in which case best let it go.

If the item has already been sold, then request to see a receipt. You might then ask for what you consider your fair share.

If you decide on the legal route, there are serious considerations.

It may prove expensive, not only in financial outlay but in terms of emotional stress and potential long-term damage to the family.

You may feel you have a moral case, but that is not necessarily a winning legal one. Is there any documentation left by the deceased? A statement the deceased made before witnesses that the item concerned should have gone to a certain party?

If it’s about what the item might bring in financial terms, is the value of the item likely to be outstripped by your legal costs?

Do try to settle the matter amicably. The threat of taking it to court is bad enough. To go through the proceedings will almost certainly lead to irreparable damage to your relationship with the other party.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.