Making decisions about personal belongings

6 min read

How do you choose where everything goes?

  • Anything not specified in the will still needs to be divided up according to its instructions.

  • In practice, this usually means making sure everyone agrees on who gets what, what is sold, and what can be given away.

  • Find a system, or get a mediator, and make sure everyone signs releases.

  • Open and transparent communication will make this process go most smoothly.

When a loved one dies, they can leave behind a lifetime’s worth of belongings. If there is a will, it is likely to state which specific things should go to specific people, and the value of everything else will have to be divided up according to the will’s instructions. Nevertheless, there will still be other items, potentially lots of them, that you will have to make decisions about.

The family and any other beneficiaries will eventually have to come to an agreement about what will happen to each item. Some will be mementos you’ll want to keep and divide up between you. Some will be things that you’ll want to sell and split the proceeds. And some will be given away or thrown out. But which is which can be a difficult choice when you’re grieving. And the last thing you want is to have regrets about something that you disposed of that you can never get back.

Be prepared for some disagreement about these matters. While the law dictates that the entire estate has to be divided up fairly according to the instructions in the will, including even small personal possessions, in practice such fairness is rarely easy to come by. One person may want to keep an item but not be willing to give up others in order to get it. The sentimental value of certain possessions is likely to far outweigh their monetary value, so selling them and dividing the proceeds may be out of the question. 

While being clear-headed and realistic at a time like this isn’t going to be easy, it’s important to remember that you are in this together, all grieving the same person. Keeping lines of communication open and being transparent about the situation will help you find the solution that works best for everyone.

The sentimental value of certain possessions is likely to far outweigh their monetary value.

Before you even begin the process of deciding what to keep, sell, or otherwise, you’ll want to take an inventory of everything and make a list. If you have a good idea of what certain things cost, then include that with each line item. If you think something might need to be researched or even professionally appraised, you can leave those line items blank until you can ascertain whether the painting in the living room is worth a small fortune or if the rug under it is actually worth more.

What to keep, and how to go about it

The biggest family problem when it comes to tangible property is that anything that hasn’t been specifically gifted in the will could be desired by two or more people. In this case, it may be best if you can convince all of the beneficiaries to adopt a system to allocate special items.

For example, you could assign each person a number and take turns picking. If there are three siblings who are dividing the estate equally, whoever has the number one chooses first, then so on down the line. For the second round, whoever has the number two chooses first, then whoever has three, then whoever has one. This pattern continues until everyone involved has decided what items they want to keep. 

Be careful, however, to make sure that everyone agrees to the system, in order to avoid any disputes down the line. You don’t want the person who picks third to decide that they have been slighted and bring the matter to court. The estate executor could end up being in trouble, or perhaps worse, the court could force the family to sell items that are important to them in order to ensure that the value is divided exactly equally. To avoid situations like this, when distributing items it is best to have each beneficiary sign a receipt and release form acknowledging that they are accepting these items and giving up their claim to all the others.

Should there be an issue agreeing to a fair system, you might consider hiring a mediator or allowing a lawyer to serve as a neutral third party.

Deciding what to sell

Which of your loved one’s belongings to sell can also be a difficult choice. Once they’re sold, they’re gone forever, and it’s impossible to be sure if this is what your loved one would have wanted. Were they hoping that someone would take the 1910 Singer sewing machine, or did they hope it would be sold? Sometimes it can be a bit of a guessing game as to what is respectful to your loved one and what makes sense for the rest of you. 

This is where your estimates of the value of the various items comes in most handy, as you can get a sense of how much you will gain for the estate by selling various items, or if putting them on the market may not be worth the time and expense. If you find that there’s a lot to sell, you can hold a yard sale or hire a company to host an estate sale for you.

What you should give away

Unless it’s a lucky sweater or a favorite T-shirt, most clothing and shoes should be given away. The same can be said for anything with little to no resale value: most paperback books, old dishes or flatware, and so on. Although it may be painful to give these items up, it can also be a healing process.

Trinkets and other small mementos can be given away to young family members or friends, so they always have something of the person who passed away. But items that no one in the family needs or wants can be given to Goodwill or the Salvation Army.

Again, it is important to make sure that all of the beneficiaries in the will agree on anything that will be given away to anyone else or donated to charity. Sadly, even items of little monetary value can be the basis of a dispute.

Throw out the rest

Once everything has been accounted for, valued, given to beneficiaries who want it, sold, or donated, anything that’s left is likely OK to be thrown out. With any luck, there shouldn’t be much to throw out that cannot be given to Goodwill. 

Although this entire process won’t be easy and will require a lot of communication and understanding between all the heirs, it’s a necessary process that brings you and your family one step closer to closure.

Both from a legal perspective and an ethical one, it is important that all decision-making around personal belongings is done fairly. These items are the physical legacy of someone you loved very much, and the process of choosing where they end up shouldn’t be taken lightly.

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.