10 Tips for Sorting & Cleaning Out a Loved One’s Belongings

10 Tips for Sorting & Cleaning Out a Loved One’s Belongings


After losing a loved one, cleaning out their home may feel too overwhelming. Try these tips to make the emotionally and physically challenging process smoother.

After losing a loved one, coping with your grief may be all you feel you can handle. Cleaning out your loved one’s home and sorting their belongings may feel too overwhelming. After all, each item of clothing, piece of furniture or even the smallest object may represent memories that can trigger an emotional spiral.

To make this emotionally and physically challenging process smoother, try these ten tips.

1. Take Your Time

There is no perfect timeline to clear out your loved one’s belongings. This is an important step in the grief journey, but don’t rush into it if you’re not ready. Be mindful, however, of any external deadlines. The landlord may need to ready the property for another tenant or you may need to sell the home to avoid continually paying the mortgage. If there is a deadline you need to meet, try not to wait until the last minute, as this will cause even more stress.

2. Find Important Financial Documents First

Before throwing out any papers, check for financial or other important documents you may need during the estate settlement process. You will likely need the Last Will and Testament, life insurance policy information, tax returns and recent bank statements to complete the decedent’s final tax returns.

3. Start Small and Gain Momentum

Start with the easiest items first. Walk through the house with a garbage bag, collecting any broken or unusable items. This will help you begin to clear out space and gain momentum.

4. Create a System (and Stick to It)

Belongings will likely fall within one of three categories: keep, give or throw away. Clearly label boxes with their intended final placement and be thorough as you sort. You don’t want to mix up the boxes and have to sort everything again.

5. Sort in Chunks

Don’t try to take on cleaning out the entire house in one fell swoop. You may rush through the process and make mistakes. Try tackling the project in spurts of three to five hours. Give yourself plenty of time for a break to make sure you don’t exhaust yourself.

6. Set a Timeframe

Be careful to not let the project stagnate. Set a reasonable timeframe to have everything sorted and out of the house. Depending on the size of your loved one’s estate and personal belongings, the timeframe could be one weekend or a few months. But having an end goal in mind can help you push through when times get tough.

7. Hire an Appraiser

An estate may need a professional appraisal if there are high-ticket items such as jewelry, antiques, art and furniture. This can help you determine value for an estate sale and divide assets equitably to siblings by monetary value. Remember to choose a reputable and licensed appraiser – particularly if you expect an audit may be possible.

8. Set Limits on What You Can Keep and Be Realistic

It is not uncommon to get belongings confused with the memories of our loved ones. While you may want to keep an entire set of fine china, all of a loved one’s jewelry and every piece of antique furniture, this is likely not possible, unless you have unlimited storage space. Take your own available space into consideration before you decide what to keep. If an item has sentimental value but you can’t keep it, take a picture to keep in a memory album.

9. Make a List of Items You Want to Keep and Have a System for Resolving Disputes

Making a list of the items you want to keep is especially important if you have siblings or other relatives involved in the sorting process. If multiple people want the same item, come up with a fair system to decide who gets it. It may be as simple as pulling a name out of a hat or taking turns picking items, but having a system in place for when this scenario arises can solve inheritance disputes.

10. Hire Help

A liquidator will typically charge a fee to empty the house after you have removed everything you have decided to keep or donate. These services typically prepare any remaining items for an estate sale as well.  As with any contractor or professional service, check to make sure they are a reputable provider.

Sorting and cleaning a loved one’s belongings is an emotional process. You may even feel guilty for deciding to donate or dispose of certain items, but try to let go of the guilt. What is most important are the memories you have, not the objects you keep.

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