Dealing with your loved one’s household items

6 min read

Tips for clearing your loved one’s home

  • Remember to take deep breath and plan ahead.

  • Boxes or big bags, labels, and markers make organizing household items easier.

  • Adhering to “The OHIO rule” will likely speed up the clearing and delegation process.

  • Creating rules for yourself regarding what you can and cannot take often makes it easier to get rid of things.

  • You can always “save” objects by capturing them in a photograph.

When a loved one dies, they leave behind a lifetime of possessions. That can mean everything from the house they lived in to a pair of knitting needles they used. Their will, if they wrote one, will likely tell you what to do with the house, but it’s far less likely that it will indicate what to do with those needles, along with so many other items of little monetary value—measuring cups, paperbacks, coats, and much more—that people pack into closets, organize on shelves, tuck into attic nooks, and store in basements and garages.

Figuring out what to do with these belongings can be an enormous emotional and logistical challenge—especially when you’re grieving and facing time pressure to empty the premises. 

But it’s a hurdle most people can easily overcome with the help of a few deep breaths and some organizational forethought and savvy. Decommissioning your loved one’s home, no matter big or modest, can be exhausting, so take as many breaks as you need to. And remember that you don’t have to do it alone; ask a friend or a relative to join you as you take it on. 

How to prep for clearing out a household

Before you begin, it is important to keep in mind that all of your loved one's belongings, no matter how small or how little they are worth, are now a part of their estate. If there is a will, any items like these that are not designated for particular recipients are supposed to be divided up according to its instructions, which in many cases may mean selling them and splitting the proceeds. And without a will, state law will determine who gets what.

In practice, however, many families and other beneficiaries choose to forgo this and simply decide among themselves who will keep which items, what can be sold, and what can be given away or thrown out. Nevertheless, this must be done under the supervision of the executor, who will tell you what can be done and when, and who will make sure every beneficiary agrees to this arrangement to avoid any legal issues later on.

After everyone has agreed on what they want to keep and what can be productively sold, you will likely have a great deal left over that you will simply say goodbye to. It’s a good idea to determine in advance where you want these belongings to wind up. Will you keep them or give them to a relative or friend? Will you donate them to charity? Will you take them for consignment? Will you throw them away? 

Many people start by getting supplies: boxes or big bags, labels, and markers.

Label your containers: Charity, Family, Consignment, Trash, or any other possible destinations. Keep in mind that boxes get heavy fast—so consider putting a series of bins in each room where belongings are to make sure nothing gets over-full and that you can lift them later on. 

The OHIO rule

For many people going through the belongings of their loved ones, the OHIO rule—Only Handle It Once—is a handy tool that ensures you don’t draw out the process too long. Once you’ve decided where something is going, move on to the next item and do not look back. This can help you be efficient and avoid the pitfall of doubting your decisions. You can always take pictures of things you’re saying goodbye to if you want to remember them later. 

How to decide what goes where

Many people find it’s very hard to get rid of anything. Sentimental value can be a powerful force. That’s another reason to have a friend with you—they’re less emotionally invested in this process and can be a good sounding board to help you figure out which items are worth keeping. Some people institute a rule not to keep for themselves anything that duplicates something they already own, or that for every item they take, they get rid of something they already have. Alternatively, some decide to limit themselves to a small number of keepsakes, say ten.

It's also useful to remember that if particular belongings carry meaning and memories for you, you can always take pictures of them. Photographs of items can be a valuable way of remembering them without having to keep the actual physical object lying around.

As you sift through the belongings, take note of what shape they’re in. If something’s broken or torn, you might simply recycle it. If it’s in good shape, you may want to contact Goodwill or another charity or religious group to see if it takes donations of household goods. Many do but restrict exactly what you can donate, and most have guidelines about when and how to deliver donations. Some organizations will pick up goods from your house. So be sure to call or check relevant websites before you fill up your car to cart things away.

Many people find it’s very hard to get rid of anything. Sentimental value can be a powerful force.

Some people bring clothes and other goods to used clothing or consignment shops in order to make some pocket money. If you do that, keep in mind that such places may not take everything you want to unload, and you’ll still be left with items you have to dispense with, adding yet another step in this task. 

If you have young relatives or friends who are just starting to furnish their own homes, you might all decide together to pass on a supply of household goods to them. As you are going through the belongings, keep an inventory of items for this purpose, and send that list along with photos to the prospective new owners so they can quickly select what they want and coordinate how best to take it off your hands. 

Other relatives may not need to stock up on housewares, but very well might want individual keepsakes from your loved one. To maintain order and fairness, the immediate family and other beneficiaries might agree to invite people to draw straws and take turns choosing what they want. If everyone is local, you can come together on-site and do this in person. If not, a group chat online can make sure everyone gets their say.

What about old electronics?

Older electronics—computers, cassette players, video cameras, and the like—go out of date very quickly, and it may not make sense to pass these items along to someone. Most cities and townships have electronics recycling programs in place. These programs offer a safe way to get rid of those items left behind by your loved ones that cannot be thrown in the trash. Check local websites to find out about e-cycling programs near you, and make sure that you ask for help to delete any personal information that might be stored on these items before you get rid of them. 

Going through all the items in your loved one’s household is daunting, and it can be upsetting to handle so many belongings that the person used and that remind you of them. Allow yourself the space and, when possible, the time to do this in a way that limits your distress and enables you to enjoy comforting memories. Those are what endure and what you will always have room for, at home and in your heart.

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.