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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Pihl

Passing On Without Leaving a Mess: How to Ease Your Family's Burden by Planning for Your Possessions

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

When people die, they leave behind a house full of “stuff.” Most of these possessions aren’t valuable or sentimental. There’s just a lot of them. Usually, it falls on the children of the deceased to sort through all the crap and figure out what to do with it. Luckily, there are some simple things you can do to spare your family from this experience.

As you may know from personal experience, one hard part about sorting through someone else’s possessions is that you don’t really know what’s valuable and what isn’t. It would have taken the deceased less than 5 seconds to tell you what something is, whether it meant anything to them, and what it’s worth. They’d also know who to call to come pick it up, or sell it to. But usually, that knowledge dies with them. For the heirs, what remains is a baffling assortment of junk.

For 95% of this junk, you can hire people to host an estate sale. They’ll sell off what they can, and recommend you take the remainder to Goodwill, or to the dump.

But what about the remaining 5%?

This 5% poses the biggest challenge. The estate sale people might not know what to do with it. Or, there might be some items with sentimental value that you don’t want to lose in the shuffle.

Worse, when the precious 5% is mixed in with the other 95%, you may feel like they have to look at every item to determine whether it would be worth anything on Antiques Roadshow. That’s exhausting and it makes the whole process take about 3 times longer.

When it comes to your house and your stuff, here’s how you can remove 95% of the headache for your kids, in 60 minutes or less.

  1. Create a plan for special, sentimental objects. Specify who will get the family heirlooms. The next time your kids are together, make it abundantly clear who gets what, and put it in writing. This will also give them a chance to identify what objects are sentimental for them, what they want to keep after you’ve passed on. Let there be no uncertainty or dispute regarding these items. You get to choose whether your kids fight for 15 minutes or for a lifetime.

  2. Create a plan for collections, tools, and hobbies. Some of these items may be hard to sell on short notice, such as paintings, shop tools, guns, or coin collections. It may be hard for your kids to know what’s worth anything, or even where they should sell it. Don’t make them do this work on their own, especially not while they’re grieving. You can probably get them 90% of the way there with a few specific steps.

    1. First, see if your kids want any of these things, either for sentimental or practical reasons. Then look over what’s left.

    2. Separate the most valuable items from the least valuable. Follow the 80/20 rule here. Identify the 20% of your items that make up 80% of the value. Label these, or take pictures and include a note that mentions the value of the item.

    3. Identify a few people who would be interested in your collection, such as a local club, high school shop class, or any personal acquaintances. Include specific names and contact info, as well as instructions on what to expect as far as selling or donating the collection.

    4. Bonus Step: If you want, you can include a personal note about your items. It doesn’t have to be super heartfelt to create a valuable piece of family history. Just let your kids and grandkids learn a little bit about you and your hobby. Did you have any favorite pieces in your collection? How did you acquire those? Are there any stories you’d like to share about your hobby? Are there any specific items you’d like to give to specific people?

    5. Include these instructions in your estate plan. You might even update your will to include instructions for these items.

Here are a couple examples of what that might look like in practice:

A friend of mine collects stamps. When he buys stamps, he gets a small box of a few hundred. Usually, that box includes dozens of relatively worthless issues that he uses for postage, and maybe 2 or 3 that are worth anything. The fun for him is sorting through and finding those 2 or 3. Here are a couple things he can do to make things easy for his heirs:

  1. Separate the valuable stamps from the worthless stamps, maybe he keeps these in a case labeled “collector stamps,” and the others go in a shoebox marked, “postage.”

  2. Draft a list of people to contact about selling the collection. He’s a member of 2 local clubs, so it might be a good idea to include contact information for those clubs, as well as any personal acquaintances who have expressed an interest in his collection.

  3. Context is everything. I think it would be neat for his heirs to receive a note about the collection. That might be a few words about what his favorite pieces are, any fun historical notes about them, and what significance they hold for him personally. A short note goes a long way in turning “junk” into something meaningful.

As much as we enjoy our hobbies, I think it is worth remembering that others might not know, or care, quite as much as we do. A short note and a little organization can save a lot of stress for those who are left to clean out our houses after we die.

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