How to Deal with Your Parent’s Estate

english tudor style home

Dear Done & Done,

I’m reaching out because I’m looking to hire someone to help me go through my late mother’s estate. Her home is big and full of decades worth of stuff. She and my father lived there for 50 years and left behind mountains of great memories and piles of laughter. However, there’s also paperwork, furniture, books and lots of artwork.

Sadly, my mother was unwell for a long time. While her death wasn’t a surprise, it seemed disrespectful to discuss her belongings until after she was gone. Now I just want it all to be dealt with quickly and efficiently.

a stack of old leather bound books

Family Discord

My sister, on the other hand, wants to go through every single thing and find a “good home” for each item. She seems to think that our cousins, second cousins and our third cousin’s-best friend’s-mother-twice removed will want some random piece of junk they haven’t set eyes on in years. Not only that, but she wants to add a handwritten letter to each of them.

I loved my parents very much and I love my sister, but I don’t understand what she’s thinking. I kept my dad’s shoeshine box and a somewhat valuable ring of my mom’s. Other than that, I’m not interested in a single thing. My house is full. My kids don’t want anything. I’m exhausted and want to hire someone to make this problem go away. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.


Ella the estate-weary daughter

two silver rings to the right of a silver analog watch

A Burdensome Estate

Dear Ella,

I’m sorry to hear that on top of losing your mom, you’re now worn out and burdened by the contents of the estate.

Unfortunately, I receive a letter similar to yours almost every single week. For the baby boomers, dealing with belongings from our parents and grandparents has become a serious issue. We don’t want the stuff and neither do our kids. It seems unbelievable that a lifetime of homemaking results in a house full of items worth little more than sentimental value.

Even prized possessions like dining room sets, china, silver and rugs often have limited monetary value…much to the surprise of family members. However, this doesn’t mean everything is worthless. On the contrary, there are often items we treasure for the memory, like the shoeshine kit, or for the monetary value like the ring.

stacks of decorative dishes

Realistically, your problem is two-fold. The first is handling the contents of your mother’s estate. The second is finding a way for you and your sister to come to an agreement about how that’s going to happen. Her plan will be time consuming and exhausting. There may be a better way to handle the situation that will leave her feeling that she did right by your parents. Which, of course, is her desire.

A Solution

Perhaps a group email to the cousins (first, second and everyone in between) stating that you will soon be clearing out your parent’s home. You can let them know that if there’s a small thing they remember or reminds them of your parents, you and your sister will try to make it happen. The email can be loving but general so that personalized notes won’t have to be written. I would also suggest you say that you’ll be dividing up the items on a first come, first served basis. So if two of them (or more) want the painting over the fireplace, it will go to the person who asked first. Additionally, remember to clarify that if it’s something you or your sister already claimed, you’ll do your best to give them something similar.

I would only advise you to get involved in this process if you and your sister can agree to some guidelines beforehand. First, the cousin project should have an end date. Tell your relatives they have a week to get back to you. If you don’t hear from them, all bets are off. Dragging out this process won’t benefit anyone. Secondly, once all of the wanted items are spoken for, you and your sister should agree to bring in someone to do the clear out.

There are many hauling companies that do their best to recycle, upcycle, and donate. In the New York City area, we highly recommend The JunkLuggers. But keep in mind that an item is only worth what someone will pay for it. Sometimes we have to face the fact that forty years of National Geographic magazines are simply recycling. Additionally, professional organizers can help you sort through any possessions that may have you feeling stuck or overwhelmed.

I wish you luck with this. It’s unfortunate that when we’re most ready to turn inward and grieve the loss of our beloved parent, we also have to deal with the huge project of their estate. It is one of life’s double whammies.

woman standing on a beach with reflection below her

All the best,