Dealing with personal possessions after someone dies

dealing with personal possessions after death

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Working through a loved one’s personal belongings after a death is a heartbreaking task. Going through someone’s possessions – possibly for the last time – can be painful and too much to handle.

People often think that because they have a will, everything is in place for the bereaved. Whilst a will is vital to ensure the estate is distributed according to their wishes, it often leaves very little in the way of practical instructions for the rest of their belongings. A will usually covers items of monetary or significant value such as property, valuables and savings. Yet there are so many more possessions that we hold dear in our lives that will likely not be detailed in a will. If there is no clear plan in place for all of your belongings, people may be left with a lot of guess work with the added complication of potential disputes amongst family members.

This post breaks down this difficult task into 5 easy to follow steps. We consider how to practically approach dealing with the deceased’s personal possessions to make the task a little less painful. We also explore how you can plan ahead and get organised now, to make this process easier for others one day.

Step 1 - Get organised

Create a plan of action with family and friends

Tackling this alone will be emotionally and physically overwhelming. If you have family members that can help, devise a plan of what needs to be dealt with and allocate tasks accordingly. Take the time to discuss any support needs you may have during this process. If you don’t feel you can discuss the impact this is having on you with family, why not talk to a trusted friend or bereavement support service?

If you have family who are not able to assist, for example they live further away, don’t forget to check in with them. Ask if there were any specific items the deceased had already promised to pass on to them. Keep those to one side to help avoid any future disputes arising.

Do not underestimate how long this process can take. Ensure you pace yourself to avoid becoming even more exhausted whilst grieving.

Consider what practical supplies you will need

Will you need boxes, labels, stickers and refuse sacks? Being organised before you start can help the process run smoother from the beginning. Set time frames for tasks to ensure that you have regular breaks.

Recognise that you may need to continually re-adjust your plan and seek assistance when you discover new issues. If you have heavy or unusual items to deal with, you may need to employ external services to help you remove and deal with those items.

Step 2 – Sorting through the property and possessions

Dividing the tasks

Take a walk through the property to get an overview of what needs to be sorted through. Divide the tasks up by room or item types. If there are lots of clothes, give that task to one person maybe. If there are more urgent items that need to be dealt with such as food in the kitchen, or valuables that need to be moved somewhere safe, make these a priority.

It may be helpful to have stages to your approach. You could do an initial clear out of items that are clearly not needed or not particularly sentimental. Then as you work through each item type, create specific areas in the property for each one. For example, place all home ware and kitchen items in one room. Put all clothing, books and personal items in another room. This way if you are having a bad day, simply spending time getting things organised may help to distract you before making any final decisions on what you want to keep or pass on.

 If the property needs to be returned quickly to a landlord, you may need to factor this in to your plan and time scales.

Donating items                              

If the person had a specific charity they supported, contact them to see what donations they are able to accept. Clothing, music collections, books, home items and furniture will always be in demand. Some charities have collection services. Check if they have restrictions on particular items before donating. Some items such as sofas need the original fire safety labels attached.

You may know someone who is just starting out in their new home and may be grateful for furniture and kitchen items. If you already have a full home yourself, it is unlikely you will need duplicates of furniture and home ware. Social media is a great place to sell or pass on items. If you don’t feel you can do this yourself, why not ask a family member to help with this.

In date food and toiletries can be also passed on to food banks to help other families in need.

Step 3 – What to watch out for

Know your limits

There may be certain items that you simply cannot face dealing with. Asking someone else to tackle these items can make sure you do not get too distressed. Some people really struggle with sorting through clothing due to the memories it can bring. Or the act of physically removing something from the house is too much of a reminder of the fact that you will not see that person – or those items again. In this case, why not place these items in a suitcase or storage containers and come back to them at another time. Remember there is absolutely no rush and you should not part with belongings until you are 100% ready.

Surprise surprise

Do not be surprised to find items that you may not have been expecting! Old letters, diaries, personal items …..and family secrets often pop up when going through someone’s belongings.  Ask someone who is slightly less connected to have an initial sift through any items that may cause upset or embarrassment. If they do find any items, again put them to one side. They can always be dealt with later when you are ready.

Step 4 – What could go wrong?

Make an inventory

Making an inventory of belongings can help in the event of any future disputes. Work with family members to go through items together if there is any possibility of conflict. By having someone with you, it can help avoid any accusations of items going ‘missing’ in the future.

Should there be items that are not easy to decide upon – such as who should have something or what should happen to it – simply put it to one side for now. You can always return to the more contentious belongings anther day. Emotions will be running high so focus on the more routine items at the most difficult times. Leave the sentimental items for another day.

Use a receipt book

If any items of value or importance are being taken by a family member, using a receipt book can be a helpful way to record this. If there are any items that are sold, issuing a receipt can provide proof of that transaction, should they be contested at a later date.

image of personal belongings


Check there is still valid insurance cover whilst the property is being cleared. If the property is empty, it may be a target for thieves so make sure the property is adequately insured and kept secure. You will also want to make sure you and any contractors that visit the property are covered too. Prioritise dealing with valuables in the home as soon as you can.

Step 5 - How can you plan ahead to help others?

After going through this experience on behalf of someone else, you may feel encouraged to plan ahead for yourself. There are a few simple steps you can take to ease the burden for others who will be required to sort through your belongings one day.

Draft a will to ensure that you have a formal and legal arrangement in place for your estate.

Plan for all of the items not covered in a will. Creating a Sunset Plan can help focus your future plans to include the practical aspects of your life. Leave instructions for what you want to happen to your belongings – as well as a clear plan for where all of your important paperwork and details are kept.

Talk to your family and let them know your wishes. This can be your future funeral wishes, what should happen to your belongings and how they can complete the practical tasks needed after a death. If there are any items you foresee could cause conflict between your children or family, speak openly to them about your wishes in advance.

Pass on items throughout life to ensure they go to where they ought to go. Tell your loved ones that you are having a clear out and use that opportunity to gift items of importance. If you are not ready to pass things on just yet, let them know the specific items that you want them to have one day then record this somewhere. Why not pop a discreet sticker on the item where it can’t be seen by others?

De-clutter your life and home on a regular basis. Share with trusted people where your valuables are located and any relevant paperwork. This ongoing practical life planning can be a huge gift to your family in the future.

Why not share this post on social media and encourage someone you know to get their life organised for the future?

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