Help with contents of my dad's house?

amandanMarch 19, 2008

My father died recently, and I'm in charge of dealing with his stuff.

The catch is that I live a good 16 hours from his house. There's a LOT of stuff (mostly very useful, some quite nice, nothing of serious value, though). I've got to get the house and furnishings squared away fairly quickly, as I can't easily keep an eye on them, and since I'm six months pregnant, I've only got a few more months where I can travel easily.

While we were there last week, my sisters and I did a quick once-over to collect important papers and to separate out things we KNEW had been promised to specific children or which we KNEW someone would want. There's still lots of stuff to go through, though. A lot of it is random "might come in handy someday" items (my dad loved to tinker and build things, so there's a stunning array of mechanical bits and pieces). Some of it, like pictures, dishes, furniture, etc. has sentimental value, and will go to one or more children, but since we all live very far away (and far from each other), it's going to take a while to arrange delivery of certain things.

Realistically, I can go back down twice more before my due date. I have to arrange for the furniture to be shipped to the appropriate kids. For the tools, random household items etc. and furniture that no one has room for, I'm thinking about just getting an estate liquidator to take care of it. Anybody ever used an estate liquidator? I have no idea what's actually involved in that.

What's bugging me are the possibly-sentimental-but-who-knows items. I share my dad's tendency to save things of dubious value, and I'm feeling particularly soppy about "his" junk right now, so I have to restrain myself from saving EVERYTHING. (I have to admit I actually took a couple boxes of bona fide JUNK, just because it was his.) But I'd hate to pitch out something that was especially near and dear to my brothers & sisters. Do you think it would be reasonable to box up things like dishes, books, pictures, records, etc. and store them for a set period of time (say one year)... and if no one has requested anything in the boxes, go ahead and donate them?

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Here are quick thoughts; maybe more later.

First--condolences on your father's death. Give yourself the freedom to grieve.
Second--okay to keep some random boxes of a bit too much stuff, especially if you have an attic or storage space. It is normal to use "things" to stay connected at first and not regret giving certain things away. Later you may feel less dependence on your dad's stuff for your memories and will feel free-er to let it go.
Third--though you are in charge, do you have to do ALL of the work? Would it be okay for a sibling to have to go there and ship his own furniture choices to himself? Or do you feel better knowing all about what's what? It's not uncommon for all the heirs to gather and do this together, as in, if you want it, come and get it; and/or, everyone puts a sticker on something he or she would like to have and then negotiate if more than one person is interested. But, maybe you have all worked this out together already.

I used "estate sale" people after each of my parents' deaths. They usually take 30-35% or so of the sale income. They price things fairly well and usually get more than typical garage sales.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2008 at 7:57PM
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I'm so sorry for your loss.

One option you may want to consider is a professional organizer. A lot of them handle estates, but in a different way than an estate specialist does. You could have the organizer come in and go through things and put them into categories so that you can spend your time more efficiently when you're there.

For instance they could go through the obvious things like clothes and linens and books and pack them up for donation. They could go through the kitchen and get rid of all the foodstuffs. They could gather up all the paperwork and photos and put them in clearly marked boxes so that you can go through them at another time. Getting those things out of the house might make it easier for you to spend the time looking at the things that you really need to look at to know if you want to keep them.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2008 at 9:30PM
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My sympathies for your loss. You asked if you should think about using an estate liquidator. You are pregnant, you live 16 hours away, you are responsible for arranging shipping of furniture, etc. My dear, you should absolutely consider it. They will advise you on the value of items, help display it at the sale, handle the sale itself, and arrange for pickup of leftover items for donation.

If your siblings have something 'near and dear' to them that they want, maybe it should be their responsibility to make sure the necessary arrangements for shipping/storage are made. That might also be something the estate handlers can help you with.

It just now dawned on me that I have nothing that belonged to my father. My mother is still living. However, I have so many memeories of my dad, that I really didn't think about this until writing this post. When my mom passes, there will be a couple of things I'll ask for, but it'll wait until that happens.

Again, my condolences.


    Bookmark   March 20, 2008 at 12:18AM
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I, too, am sorry for your loss. I had the same problem you had being hundreds of miles away from my Mother's house, and my only sib living about 150 miles from me (and my sib had a 7 day old baby when my Mom died, so she was pretty tied down at home.)

Here's what we did: meet at my Mom's house a couple of times and do some initial sorting and dividing. It went pretty well, though I think I should caution you that you will only get a fraction of the work you think you'll get done as it will take much longer than you expect. It can be emotionally grueling to do, and that will sap your energy in a big way. Too often I think that leads people to just cut and run.

Because of that we had still about 80% of the stuff still undivided, or at least un-spoken for, by the time my sister had to return home.

After that what I decided to do was to literally pack almost everything else up and move it by UHaul to storage where I live. This gave us the opportunity to make better decisions at a time when we were not so distressed and burdened and it has worked out very well. We have frequently remembered some minor thing and been glad that I can still retrieve it from storage.

My Mom has been dead for some time now and this summer I am going to start to reduce things still more. I find that I have adjusted to her being gone and can think more clearly. I wouldn't have been ready for that in year, or even a couple of years.

So, my suggestion would be to keep (and store if necessary) more and give yourself the gift of dealing with it over time, when you feel more up to it and can make better decisions. You can always dispose of things later, but you can't get them back.


    Bookmark   March 20, 2008 at 1:15AM
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I agree with Molly: You can't get things back. I'm glad you've kept several boxes of stuff. If you all chip in and pay to store rest of the stuff for a year or so, maybe you can all get together then to decide what to do about it. There is nothing wrong with being sentimental and careful. Don't let your sibs or anyone else talk you out of taking your time. It's that important, in my opinion. I am loving just using a lot of my parents' stuff.

One thing I did so I could identify things easily later was photograph smallish items as I boxed them. I numbered the boxes and photo envelopes, kept the photo envelopes separated by box numbers so I can tell at a glance what is in which box. I kept things grouped in the boxes. That way I haven't had to go through all the boxes to find a specific thing when someone decides about it. Things like crystal knick-knacks, cooking utensils, dolls, lamps, paintings. Eventually, I guess it will all be distributed, sold, given away, but for now, at least I can find things. And believe me, my brothers who advised me to just get rid of everything at the time have since asked for Dad's turkey platter and Mom's crystal fruit bowl, among other things.

Give yourself permission to smile and cry and be angry. No matter how hard you try, the job will take a lot longer than you'd hoped it would, that's a given.

Enjoy the rest of your pregnancy. Good luck to you.


    Bookmark   March 20, 2008 at 9:52AM
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I'm sorry for your loss. Some things are never really easy in these times.

I'm only offering this up as something that worked very well for dealing with the worldly goods of a deceased elderly aunt. What was in our favor was that everyone else was relieved not to have to deal with it themselves - so we had carte blanche to do things our way. Others, and rightly so in their cases, find it better to keep everything, incorporate the entire household into their own, to spend time pricing for garage sales, to sell on Ebay or Craig's List, to store until such time as everyone can pick through it for what they want or need.... the reasons and methods are as varied as the people who have to deal with things.

We knew we had to go through drawers and boxes and closets, etc., but managed to remove important papers, expensive jewelry, family photographs, items with a history etc. We had all the relatives attending the funeral come back to the house and choose a momento, antique, piece of furniture or whatever - on the condition that they take it with them or make very QUICK arrangements to remove it. Then we simply called a local estate auction house to come in, appraise the remaining contents, write us a check on the spot (which was far more than fair and more than the proceeds from piecemeal selling), then haul everything away right down to the bag of plastic bags and dented pots and pans. No fuss, no muss and they even vacuumed before locking the door.

We cartainly were not unsympathetic to this beloved aunt's things, but many of us just were not in the position to become the repositoty of all the household goods that may or may not have had some kind of meaning or value or use. A treasured item that we knew she loved meant more to her living siblings and host of nieces and nephews than a storage locker full of items that no one would never seem to find the time, or even have the inclination, to get back to.

Just my 2 cents. And I truly hope you find the method that works out the best for you even if it's keeping everything in storage for years. Whatever you decide, don't allow your decisions to be second guessed.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2008 at 4:59PM
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My family was dealing with this same problem last fall. It isn't easy. My dad was pretty organized and had already given a lot of furniture and china/silver to various children. A lot of what was left in the house, that he was using, was earmarked for certain children. However, his eight kids are scattered across the US and at the time of his death one was serving overseas and his wife and baby had gone to yet another country to be with her family while he was away. Things got complicated.

We rented a storage area. We all got together shortly after the funeral and marked all the furniture that was to go into storage and all other furniture that people wanted to take right away. We rented a van and moved everything into storage in one day. Everything else, each individual was responsible for getting it home. Dad's estate is paying for the storage area for one year. After that, people have to either toss/donate the stuff or get it home somehow.

We sorted out the really important papers that we would need right away. We boxed up the rest, labeled the boxes and put them in storage. We deliberately chose a storage facility near the closest sibling. My sister and I are now going through the papers at the rate of a box a month. One of my brothers wants all Dad's military papers, so we can just send those off to him as we come across them.

For some of the smaller stuff, china, silver, pictures, etc. one of my sisters took a lot of it home with her. She sent out emails listing the stuff to see if anyone wanted it. If someone claimed it, she set it aside for them to come and get it or for them to send money to ship it. The remainder got donated. This process took about 4 or 5 months. This would be the sentimental stuff that you are talking about--who knew that my brother would want Dad's desk chair or my sister really loved the picture that hung over Dad's bookcase?

We contacted a couple of charities to see if they wanted any of the furniture, dishes, linens. One charity took several things, the other only 4 chairs.

After that, we checked with some estate sale places, but they said we didn't have enough good quality stuff to hold a sale.

Once everything we wanted was out of the house, we rented a dumpster and tossed a lot of stuff. No one really wants 40 year old mattresses, love seats with missing legs, kitchen tables that sag in the middle.

Two of my siblings were really hurt that we threw away some of the furniture from the house. They still saw it through eyes of love. It was old, battered, falling apart. I finally told them they were free to take it home, sell it or find someone else to take it, but I was through with it. Oddly, they didn't want to take it home themselves, nor were they roused enough to find someone else to take it.

It helps a lot if you have someone with you when you go through the things. A little moral support; a little voice of reason when you get carried away and want to save everything.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2008 at 6:07PM
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My Dad's been gone 10 years, Mom is 84 and in poor health. I thought a lot about what to do when she goes. I'm the oldest of four children. Right now I've made a list of sentimental value items I want, such as my own baby photos. Mom loved to make photo albums, she had two devoted to me-up to age one and age one to two. I definitely want them, plus a couple of lamps, plus some china figurines- toy dogs Mom had collected as a teenager. I will show the list to my sibs and suggest they make their own lists. Unfortunately, Mom has a house stuffed with curios. I can imagine sorting room by room together, it will take at least a week. The rest of the stuff, old furniture and clothes, I really don't want so I think we can donate or throw out a lot. I know when my MIL died two years ago it took her two daughters about six months to go thru everything.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2008 at 8:50PM
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I think you can be drowned by stuff. Am going through the same thing myself. And when you're baby comes, there will be MORE STUFF.

Some ideas...
1) Rent a dumpster. Did that the last time I moved and it was not that expensive and very liberating as you did not have to deal with bags and bags of trash. Somehow it liberated me to throw things away like a mad woman. I do believe that when you are donating to should be selective and donate only fairly nice things...not ripped, torn or stained items or hopelessly outdated.
2) The sheer quanitity! Have you considered taking photographs of some of the stuff you're fond of, but can't really keep due to volume I took pics of my mom's house, her closets and stuff after she died, so I have the memory of her HOUSE as she kept it. Silly, but it meant something to me. But she had a LOT OF STUFF. So I have a lot of pics!
3) Keep a random sampling of the junk. I kept one of my mom's lipsticks, one of her pink rollers and her hair brush will her blonde hair still in it. Threw it in my make up drawer and smile sometimes when I root around and see it. Was so ironic when my dad pointed out that I had thrown out my GRANDMOTHER's powder that my mom had kept for over 30 years...I bet for the same reason.

I have been into some homes having estate sales. I really recommend it because it was apparent they were dealing with the very last bits of stuff that you probably would not want anyway.

There is no perfect tidy way to wrap up someone's life. I am hopelessly sentimental yet get overwhelmed by stuff. I'd rather sit and look at a few select items or photos.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2008 at 10:25PM
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My sister and I had to deal with an aunt's things when she died. She lived in Phoenix and had ended up with all of our grandmother's things because when Grandma died over 30 years earlier she was living with this aunt. The aunt was survived by 10 nieces and nephews.

My sister and I flew to Phoenix and emptied that house in 3 days. We unpacked boxes that hadn't been touched since my aunt moved to Phoenix 10 years previously. We contacted each of the nieces and nephews and asked them what they wanted and made 10 piles in a bedroom adding to them as we found good stuff. And we did! All of our grandmother's Danish china, handmade lace, photographs and other special things were all there.

The key to this project was an antique dealer who was willing to come in and take EVERYTHING we didn't want. This included getting rid of junky furniture etc. They packed it all into their truck and took it away as well as the books etc. that we just didn't have time to go through. This is apparently very comman in Phoenix as so many people retire there and relatives at a distance need to empty a house. Look up in the phone directory and see what is available. An estate sale may be a better choice in your case.

We then packed up one box for each person and took them to the package store and sent them off. Thank goodness the house was a rental.

Don't go to attempt sorting things out by yourself! Meet a sibling there or bring your husband. You mentioned brothers and sisters so there should be others to help. I think your idea of storing some things is an OK one but try to be selective or you will have just postponed the problem. In a year you will have a baby to deal with.

Good Luck!

    Bookmark   April 9, 2008 at 12:00PM
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