How to handle illegal items in your loved one’s possession

6 min read

What to do with guns or drugs in your loved one’s home

  • You may discover things that are illegal or heavily regulated when you go through a loved one’s possessions after they die.

  • If you find guns or illegal drugs, there are law enforcement agencies that will help dispose of the items you’ve found.

  • In the case of drugs, keep in mind that even legal prescriptions require special handling.

  • Remember as you go through the house that these objects, surprising or upsetting as they may be, do not fully reflect who your loved one was.

Going through your loved one’s things after they pass away can be a complex and involved process. The logistics of figuring out what to do with everything is hard enough, and then there are all the emotional aspects of the task. The objects can evoke memories, raise questions, or spark conflict.

This is even more difficult if you discover items that are illegal or of questionable legal status. Not only are there special rules for handling them, but depending on what they are, it may be a challenge to reconcile them with your memories of the person you knew.

It is crucial therefore to know the right steps to take to deal with these unusual finds. The sooner you address their transfer or disposal, the more time you’ll be able to devote to processing the experience emotionally.

Disposing of prescription medicine 

The most common items found among a loved one’s things that require special handling are prescription drugs. A majority of American adults take prescription medication at least once a day, and they often leave partially full bottles of pills after their passing.

There are four main ways of disposing of prescription medicines.

Take-back programs

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration conducts National Prescription Drug Take-Back events regularly to allow people to drop off unused, unwanted, and expired medications. You can’t, however, drop off needles, injectables, or any intravenous solutions. Outside of these national take-back events, you may also drop off medications at authorized sites, including hospitals, pharmacies, and local law enforcement agencies. 


If you find medication that has not been opened and is not due to expire soon, you may be able to donate it. A majority of states have passed laws allowing you to donate unopened unexpired medications as long as they are not opioids or other controlled substances. Unfortunately not all of these states have programs set up to accept donations. You can call a local pharmacy or clinic and ask if they accept donations; if they do, they will inspect the medicine and then take it off your hands.

If you live in a state that does not allow donation, or if you cannot find anywhere to donate near you, some states, like Georgia, Iowa, and Wyoming, accept mailed donations of medication from those anywhere in the country.

If you’d like to donate your loved one’s medication to help those in other countries, the organization World Medical Relief can help guide you in this process. You must make sure that the medication’s expiration date is at least six months away. 

Flushing medication down the sink or toilet

Generally, the label on a prescription bottle tells you whether it is OK to flush the medication down the sink or toilet. The FDA also maintains a Flush List of medicines that are able to be flushed. This option should only be used if you are unable to use either of the two methods of surrendering the drugs.

Trash disposal

If none of the above work, you may throw the medication in the trash by following these guidelines:

  • Keep the medication in its original container (i.e., do not crush pills)

  • Remove all personal information

  • Add soda or water to pill bottles

  • Add dirt, cat litter, or something similar for liquid medication

  • Place medication inside an opaque container

  • Dispose of the trash as close to pick-up day as possible

Finding illegal drugs in your loved one’s home

While prescription drugs can be donated or disposed of, other controlled substances are entirely illegal and must be treated accordingly.

If you happen to find a drug like cocaine, heroin, or LSD at your loved one’s house, do not bring them to a state-organized take-back program. Leave them where they are and do not remove them from the home.

As these drugs are illegal at the federal level, taking them out of the house could be considered illegal possession, even if you are doing so in order to surrender them to authorities. Instead, immediately contact local law enforcement and follow their precise instructions. 

Legal and illegal firearms

While it is legal for adults to own guns everywhere in the US, there are specific regulations for certain firearms known as Title II weapons or NFA weapons (for the National Firearms Act). These include machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, silencers, explosive devices, and large-caliber weapons. It is legal to own NFA weapons in most states, but they are extensively regulated and must be registered.

Should you find one of the above-listed weapons at your loved one’s home, you must ascertain whether it is registered. If there is no paperwork or other evidence indicating that it was legally owned, contact the NFA branch of the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and they can tell you whether it is a legal firearm.

If you find illegal firearms, it is your responsibility to report them to your local ATF office or law enforcement agency. Otherwise you are breaking federal law and exposing yourself to incarceration and fines. The agent you speak to will give you specific instructions as to how to forfeit the weapon.

If your loved one owned a licensed NFA weapon, the executor of the estate may take possession of it until the end of the probate process. Once probate is complete, you will need to file paperwork to transfer ownership to the listed beneficiary. For this, you will need access to the original registration paperwork, the approval of the chief law enforcement officer in your area, and a copy of your loved one’s will. Contact your local ATF office for a list of required paperwork. 

If you find illegal firearms, it is your responsibility to report them to your local ATF office or law enforcement agency.

A few states require registration for some other categories of guns that are not NFA weapons, and three states require a license to own any kind of firearm, including pistols. Consult local laws or speak to a lawyer if you find a weapon that may need to be surrendered or re-licensed. Your local branch of the ATF will also be able to help you understand the laws that apply in the state where your loved one lived.

Other things to keep in mind with guns

  • To avoid all issues and confusion with the transfer of firearms after they die, many gun owners choose to open a gun trust. These trusts hold the title to the firearms and function very much like living or testamentary trusts, except they can last for several generations.

  • If you live in a different state from your loved one and you inherit a weapon that they owned, you must make sure that taking possession of this inheritance complies with the laws of both states.

  • If you want nothing to do with your loved one’s firearm, you can sell it to a licensed dealer or surrender it to the local police department. Call your local law enforcement agency or ATF office for clear instructions on how to do this.

Other illegal items

There may be other categories of illegal things among your loved one’s belongings, whether they are themselves illegal under state or federal law or are legal items obtained illegally. Some examples might include illegal pets, counterfeit money, or objects that are obviously stolen. If you find such items, get in touch with local law enforcement, or contact a governmental branch responsible for such items. For example, notify the Secret Service about counterfeit money. If you find illegal or exotic animals, get in touch with local Animal Control, and so on.

You may also find items that are not illegal to own but may be illegal to sell, depending on how they were acquired. A common example is an item made from banned materials that come from endangered species, such as ivory or tortoiseshell. These objects are illegal in interstate and international commerce, but can be sold within a state—as long as they were legally acquired before the ban went into effect, with documentation to prove it.

If not, it is still legal for an heir or beneficiary to inherit these items, but as their sale is illegal, they cannot be liquidated and divided as part of the estate. Some families choose to turn such items over to the Department of Fish and Wildlife instead of keeping them.

If you discover a large amount of cash in bills, this money should be deposited in a bank as part of your loved one’s estate. Be aware, however, that depending on how much money it is, the IRS may become interested in where these funds came from. If the source of the money cannot be ascertained, they may end up taxing it as part of your loved one’s income.

No matter what you find among your loved one’s things, try not to let it color your memory of them in a negative way. We all have different sides of ourselves that we show to various people in our lives, and that doesn’t make any of those sides less real. And remember, these are just objects; the things that happen to be in our homes at any given time may reflect very little or even none of who we are.

Deal with each item the way it needs to be dealt with, but do not let them trouble you too much. Your memories of the person, the times you spent together, and the love you had for one another are far more important.

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.