- Get support from people who knew the deceased well
- Get locks changed and mail forwarded
- Pets or livestock will need a new home, which local shelters of charities can help with
- Consider second homes, depots, or other places where belongings might be found
- Consider holding an estate sale, possibly organized by a professional company
- Pay attention to antiques of collectable items that might be worth a lot of money
In most cases, the person responsible for the task of handling the possessions and personal effects of someone who has passed away is the legally designated executor of the estate.
If you unexpectedly find yourself entrusted with this responsibility, get support. Unless the deceased lived in a monastery, the process of dealing with their stuff is a task for several teams. Gather your forces and map out a strategy, based on what needs to be done and how much time you have to accomplish it.
If possible, seek the advice of someone who knew the person well. The input of close relatives and friends will make the process of sorting through everything easier. In the best case, they can help you sort through the contents of the house and decide how to handle things.
Have the locks changed as soon as possible, first of all. Arrange to have the mail forwarded as needed.
Do a walk-through of every room to get a sense of the scope of the operation. Take photographs and make notes of anything that needs special attention.
Take stock of any pets, plants, livestock, or other living beings on the property and make sure they are rehomed, rescued, or otherwise safe and taken care of.
Take inventory of the contents of the house and other property. Room by room may be the most efficient way, but you might find other methods work better for you. Once you have an idea of what’s there, it will give you an idea of how to manage it and what you will need.
Keep an eye out for documents that might provide clues if no one can tell you. Anything that looks like it might be a legal or financial document should be set aside and put into some kind of order if not already organized.
Get a handle on belongings that might be somewhere else. Maybe this person had a summer house or other property that will also have to be dealt with. They may also be renting one or more storage units to hold things that could not fit in the house.
Jewelry and other things that might have value, if only sentimental, should be noted and photographed. You might want to have fine jewelry and other possibly expensive items appraised to determine their value. Put aside photographs, scrapbooks, and photo albums as well, as these relics of the past are the most irreplaceable items.
If the deceased had a creative, academic, or other professional career, or was in any way a historic figure or member of a prominent family, their personal papers or other works may be of interest to a historical society, library, or university.
If there are antiques or other high-value items in good condition among the contents of the house, you might consider holding an estate sale. Depending on where you live, you may be able to find a service to handle the whole thing. The estate sale service may charge a flat fee plus a percentage of the sale’s proceeds.
While not technically antiques, older items now considered “classic,” “vintage”, or “retro” might be of value to others. Old dictionaries, magazines in good condition, and cookbooks are prized by collectors. Old LPs are increasingly rare and valuable, more so if they are in good condition. Vintage clothing is a huge industry in many places, and resellers will pay well for clothing in good condition. Check online for an idea of reasonable prices for used cars and other large items. It is a good idea to have an expert appraise any paintings or sculptures found in the house if their origin is uncertain. Stories of lost masterpieces and recovered archaeological treasures are not as uncommon as it might seem.
It is best to leave as little as possible to the trash, and eventual landfill. Even if there is nothing of high monetary value among the items, there may still be many things that someone can use. Your local Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other charity probably runs a thrift store or “opportunity shop.” Even if not exactly retro-trendy, clothing, furniture, housewares, books, and other things that are still usable will be appreciated. Some organizations will come with their own vehicles to take things away. Organizations such as women’s shelters and even animal rescues can use items such as throw rugs, towels and bedding.
It is important to check all pockets of all garments before they are sent to a charity. Very often older people who lived through the Depression or have some other reason to distrust banks have stashed money or valuables in coats or suit pockets. You might find cash, antique coins, or US Government Savings Bonds you had no idea existed.
Social media such as Facebook groups, neighborhood forums and other online resources may be helpful in making the process of disposal less difficult and locating people who want what you are selling or donating.
When the house is empty, it will need to be deep-cleaned professionally. You may want to have the utilities disconnected after this.
To the best of your ability, get ahead of this process as far in advance as possible. Make plans for bequeathing and distributing sentimental and valuable items a part of your own or your family member’s end-of-life planning, along with the will and other final wishes. Official records of who inherits what will be invaluable in keeping the peace.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, including procedures for handling and sanitizing property. Consult your local health department or other relevant agency if you have questions about sanitation and safe handling and/or disposal of valuables and other items.