Inventorying your loved one’s personal belongings

5 min read

Tips for inventorying all the belongings in the house

  • Start with a plan. List the rooms in the house in priority order. Write it down if you can, and bring a friend.

  • It's easiest to sort things by where they will end up: Keep, Sell, Give to friends, Donate, Trash, etc.

  • Write down monetary values of things if you know them, and use an online spreadsheet.

  • Take it slow and remember this is an emotionally overwhelming task for most people.

At some point after your loved one passes away, it will be time to deal with their personal belongings—not the big things, like houses or cars, but little possessions, like clothing, furniture, housewares, trinkets, and the like. Although they may not be outlined directly in the will as part of your loved one’s estate, these are the things that often hold the most emotional value, which can make it difficult to confront the task of sorting them. 

When you are ready to take this job on, it will be helpful to stay as organized as possible while creating an inventory of all of your loved one’s possessions. 

Preparing yourself emotionally

Before you take inventory of any personal belongings, take an internal inventory of how you are feeling. This is going to be a challenging task. For some, it might be necessary to assume a more objective or removed stance. For others, the experience of physically interacting with each object will feel grounding and provide a sense of catharsis or closure. 

Then, plan out how you are going to do the job. Having a plan can help to regulate what might otherwise feel impossible. Before entering your loved one’s home, consider:

  • What dates and times will you be in your loved one’s space, sorting through their belongings? Being in their physical space can be overwhelming. Do you want to have friends or family there with you? Let them know in advance, and block out the time on your calendar.

  • Prioritize. Some items will probably need to be dealt with first. For example, if your loved one had an office where they kept personal records, bills, and the like, this is usually an important place to start. Try to rank rooms or sections of the living space in order from most urgent to least urgent, and write this down. 

  • Ask for help if you need it. If there are items that just feel too emotionally charged for you, do you have a friend who can support you in dealing with them? Make a list of any items that you think you might need additional support in negotiating, and share it with that person. 

  • Pace yourself. If you don’t have the luxury of time, your tendency might be to rush this important process. Even if you’re on a deadline, don’t try to do everything in one day, and take breaks when you are feeling overwhelmed. Remember to breathe. You can do this. 

Dealing with valuable items

Your loved one may have left behind items of value, such as jewelry containing precious stones or silverware made of real silver, but you might have no idea how much these things are worth. These items may end up becoming part of your loved one’s estate and potentially divided among the heirs or sold to pay off debts. In any case, it’ll be helpful to have an approximate idea of their monetary value. A good place to begin is eBay; search for the item in question to see what similar things usually sell for. You might also consider hiring a professional appraiser.

Before you take inventory of any personal belongings, take an internal inventory of how you are feeling.

Aside from monetary value, there might be some objects that carry a lot of emotional value, such as photo albums, which are difficult to quantify and divvy up between the family. One solution would be to make copies of the photographs, but the compromise will not always be that simple. Sometimes a nuanced approach will be necessary to fairly allocate these emotionally valuable items. If the beneficiary of a particular item was dictated in the will, or if you might have an idea of who in the family will want certain objects, you can make a note of that in your list. 

Doing the inventory

When you are ready to begin taking inventory, gather the following important tools: Post-It notes, boxes or storage bins, ziplock bags, trash bags, and a phone, computer, or tablet. The main goal here is to categorize the items according to where they will end up (i.e. in a relative’s home, or with a charity). Some categories that might be helpful are: “To Keep,” “To Sell,” “To Donate,” “For Friends/Family,” and “Unsure.” As you do so, mark down approximate values for anything whose monetary worth you have a sense of.

Try the best you can to create a separate area in the home for each category—this will look different depending on the volume of belongings and the space available. If the items fit in boxes or bins, use those, if not, perhaps use different rooms. Begin in the room or area that you’ve ranked highest on your priority list, and begin placing items into the designated categories.  

As impossible as this task might have seemed, once you get started, you’ll likely find that it goes relatively smoothly. Either as you work or later from your notes, create an online spreadsheet in which you record the contents of your loved one’s home, broken into the categories that you find most useful. This can both serve as a document to share among family members, and a record of your loved one’s possessions. 

These things will never just be stuff to you, but ultimately they will all need to be dealt with. If you stay organized and plan thoroughly, the process should be a simple one. It may help to keep in mind that what is most important isn’t these physical objects, but the memories they inspire in you, and those will never be forgotten.

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.