Clearing out the house without burning bridges

6 min read

Avoiding conflict over household belongings

  • Be open and honest with family members: ask for support when you need it, and make yourself available to them too.

  • If multiple family members want the same item, work out a system that everyone can agree on, or sell it all and divide the proceeds according to the will.

  • Don’t rush into decisions if you know they may cause pain to yourself or people you love.

  • Take the time to listen and be heard so that you can honor your family bonds and your loved one's memory.

In the days and weeks following the death of a loved one, it can often be hard to see clearly or make rational decisions. And family tensions can rear up like never before, throwing you and those closest to you into arguments. This is particularly true when it comes to your loved one’s personal possessions, as there is often conflict about who gets what and when, and who gets left out. 

Everyone grieves in their own way. Some people might take much longer than others, for example, to feel like they can handle something like clearing out the house. A loss can change everything in your family dynamics, and it is important to be kind both to yourself and to the rest of your family members as you go through this difficult time.

There are many considerations involved in sorting your loved one’s personal possessions, be it making sure everything is accounted for in preparation for probate, or deciding where unwanted items will end up. Here are some things to keep in mind as you begin the process.

Ask for help

Going through all of your loved one’s possessions can be demanding, both physically and emotionally. If you are fortunate to have family members who can help, reach out and ask them to join you. 

Remember, however, that asking for help should not be the cause of additional pain. If you sense that your relatives would not be cooperative in this process, or feel that including them could lead to inevitable tensions, consider asking a close friend instead. 

Involving a few close and trusted friends is often a great option, as they are removed enough from the situation to be an impartial help in making decisions, but close enough to you to be a shoulder to cry on. 

Should you decide to sell the house, it will need to be fully emptied, which necessarily requires more labor-intensive work. If you intend to keep the property, you may want to take it slowly so as to not overexert yourself.

Seeing eye to eye

If other family members are involved in the process of clearing out the house, whether they joined at your request or of their own accord, complications can sometimes arise. Just like grieving, everyone deals with the sorting of items differently. Some people may be eager to get it over with to focus on their grief, and others may want to get it over with to move on with their lives. Still others will want to take their time, because sorting through personal belongings is a way for them to truly process the passing of the person they loved. 

It is important to be as honest with your family members as you can before you start this job together. Let them know how you are feeling and what will work for you. Do not be afraid to directly ask them for the support you need. And make yourself available to them too. In these moments, while family conflict might become more intense, it may also be an opportunity to heal collectively.

If a family member is determined to move quickly and you want to take your time—or vice versa—consider telling them to take care of what they need to do and come to you to discuss any items they are unsure about or want to keep themselves. That way, they will participate in the way they see fit, and you can continue on your own timeline. 

Just like grieving, everyone deals with the sorting of items differently.

When the time comes to decide what to do with your loved one’s possessions, consider making piles to start: keep, sell, donate, or toss. Take into account the instructions in the will, as well as what your loved one would have wanted or even explicitly told you, and the opinions of other family members and considerations like what you have the capacity to store.

Not everyone may agree with you about what to get rid of. To avoid conflict, make sure everyone leaves the things they think should be kept in one pile, rather than simply taking them, so you can discuss them all together.

Remind your family that even if it feels difficult to let go of a lot of this stuff, you should really be thinking about keeping only a few things, the ones that are the most valuable to you or involve important memories. The rest you can take photographs of and remember them that way after you donate, sell, or trash them.

Selling vs. donating

One good way to sell the items that you and your family do not want to keep is to hold an estate sale. In general, you should not hold an estate sale before probate, as you may run into challenges with the court if you do. 

If family members do not want to hold an estate sale and would rather be in charge of the sale of items directly, let them. Some people like to have control over a situation as a way to process its reality.

Consider donating items that are not valuable enough to be sold to a local community center or charity. Donating is a lovely way to allow your loved one’s legacy to help those in need.

Keep in mind that all of these items, no matter how little they may be worth on the market, are a part of your loved one's estate and must be distributed according to the instructions in the will (or state law if there is no will). In practice, your family will likely decide that some things can be thrown out or donated while others will be divided among you, but this should only be done with the agreement of all the beneficiaries or heirs. Always consult a lawyer if you are not sure what can be done.

Choosing who gets what

Once you finish going through the house, sorting, donating, and getting rid of unwanted items, return to the pile of things you wanted to keep. If multiple family members want the same item, try to work out a system that everyone can agree on. Again, keep in mind that everyone must agree to the outcome of this system to avoid any legal complications.

A simple system might involve each person taking turns claiming an item until there are none left. But you may work out something that feels fairer to you all. If you still cannot agree, you may end up having to sell the items and divide the proceeds according to the will. Try to build consensus before it gets to this point, or even bring in an impartial mediator. No item, no matter how meaningful to you, is worth burning bridges with your family. 

Knowing what to do with your loved one’s property can be very difficult for you and your family. Don’t rush into decisions if you know that these decisions may cause pain to yourself and the people you love. Take the time to listen and be heard so that you can both honor your loved one’s life and wishes, and preserve the supportive relationships that matter so much in times of pain and loss.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.