Dealing with Keepsakes: Personal Belongings of Deceased Loved Ones  

Losing a loved one is heartbreaking and going through that person’s property can be difficult and painful. However, sorting through the items with a plan and good support can make the process easier. The deceased person’s will governs the way the assets of the estate are dealt with and distributed. The probate court will nominate or approve an executor-a person with legal authority and responsibility to oversee the affairs of an estate. If you are named as the estate executor, consider that both an honor and a great responsibility.   

In legal terms, personal property is defined as movable items. It can be both tangible (livestock, antiques) and intangible (copyrights, patents). Consult with an attorney to help guide you through potential legal issues that may arise.   

First step:

If the deceased left behind instructions of how their possessions should be handled then you must follow them. The instructions are called a will. A will typically indicates an appointed executor or personal representative and the court will swear in the executor. If the individual dies without a will, the court will select a personal representative to settle the estate.

Make a plan:   

It is helpful to have a plan before you begin this process.  Each family does this differently. Some families involve everyone, and other families choose a representative from each interested party. It is important that each beneficiary agrees to “the plan” for distribution. You will want to go through each room and keep an inventory of items that would be distributed or go to auction.    

Invite Friends and Relatives to Help Sort:

You can begin by creating categories for keep, recycle, sell, donate, and trash. Consider what you might need such as boxes, labels, cleaning equipment, etc. Invite friends and family to help you sort; create easy to follow instructions on how the items should be handled. For items that have more value like jewelry, it is important to get it appraised by a professional.

How to choose:   

You may need to be creative with the choosing process. The distribution process often depends on the dynamics of your family and each person’s relationship with the deceased.  

Here are some suggestions:   

  • Take turns picking items: If interested parties can all be in the same place at the same time, it can be useful to take turns in picking items. This method can also be done virtually.  You could divide items by monetary value, sentimental value or use.  
  • Use a lottery system: You can put the name of items into a hat and individuals can draw, or you can decide who will choose first in a lottery. It is important that all participants feel that the process is fair. Good communication will help preserve your relationships.
  • Sell-high value items and divide the profit: Consider hiring an appraiser to ensure full value for valuable items such as jewelry, art, furniture, and antiques. If you only need to sell a few items, you may set up a garage sale or post on Facebook Marketplace, eBay, or another online option.   
  • Donate unsold items to non-profits: There are a handful of organizations that accept donations. You can look into charities and non-profits that your loved one really cared about and donate to that organization.   


Some Methods and Factors to Consider:  

  • Try to start the process of distributing personal possessions with an open conversation concerning attachment to items, what is fair, who will be involved, and what is the timing of the distribution.   
  • Take inventory of items. It is best if you start in one location, such as the kitchen, and record items.   
  • It is vital to remember that each person grieves differently and gives the material items different weight and importance. 
  • There is a variety of different categories of personal property.  You do not need to make decisions quickly.  The goal is to preserve relationships and have an equitable outcome. 
  • Don’t be afraid to recycle/dispose of items – Keep items with pleasant memories and dispose of anything that causes emotional angst. You can consider photographing or videotaping items before disposing of items. This may help you move forward in your cleaning. Repurpose where you can; for example, making a quilt out of some of their clothes and donate the rest. Some items may trigger memories of a special person, but it does not mean you have to keep everything they owned over the years. Keep some special mementos that mean something.

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