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Cherished Items & Tough Choices: What to Do with Belongings After a Death

Taking care of the belongings of a loved one who has passed away can be emotionally challenging.

Tips for Sorting Through a Loved One's Belongings

Taking care of the belongings of a loved one who has passed away can be emotionally challenging. The process is often daunting, whether the person was a close relative or a friend. The things they left behind make the loss feel even more difficult to cope with. 

If you are the one who has to handle the aftermath of a loved one's passing, you should take your time and start only when you feel ready. Explore coping strategies for dealing with the emotions that come with this task. Here are some tips to keep you from feeling overwhelmed when it's time to take care of a loved one's belongings.

Tip 1: Don't Rush

When it comes to sorting through your loved one's belongings, there is no time frame. Even if you are up against a hard deadline, you should still take as much time as you need. You might have to find temporary storage, but don't allow anyone to rush you through this task. Hurrying through the task can make it even more emotionally challenging. You may regret giving away or throwing out something you wished you'd kept if you hadn't been rushing.

Tip 2: Ask for Help

Sorting your loved one's belongings can be difficult, especially if you were close to them. You might find it challenging to make decisions about what to keep and what to give away. In such cases, it's helpful to have a friend or family member to assist you in the process. 

Going through your loved one's belongings will be emotional. Having someone to talk to might help you decide on the best course of action.

In addition, you should ask if there are specific things that your loved one's family members want. However, for valuable items such as jewelry, antiques, and artwork, it's essential to get them appraised by a reputable third party. This is especially important if more than one person wants them. In some cases, an appraisal might even be necessary to comply with legal requirements outlined in your loved one's will.

Tip 3: Take Breaks

Going through your loved one's belongings can bring feelings of closure and nostalgia. However, it can also make your loss feel as raw and new as the time of their passing. Thus, it's crucial to take a break when you feel overwhelmed. 

If an hour or two is all you can manage in a day, that's alright. Taking breaks can help to reduce the emotional weight you feel. It can also make the process more manageable.

Tip 4: Start Small

Going through an entire house full of belongings can be daunting. Start small by beginning with one closet, one cabinet, or one section of a room at a time. 

Begin with the basement or attic first, where old boxes have sat for years. Starting with things you're less likely to feel emotional about is more manageable. Small bits of progress will add up over time faster than you expect.

Tip 5: It's Okay to be Unsure

When decluttering, it's helpful to have labeled bins, boxes, or large plastic bags. We recommend using labels that read Keep, Donate, Discard, and Not Sure. It's perfectly fine if you're not sure whether you want to donate items at that moment. You can keep them in the "not sure" container and come back to make a decision at a later time.

Tip 6: Keep Important Documents Secure

To avoid legal or financial problems down the line, keep the following documents on hand until you speak to the executor or an attorney:

Tax Forms and Supporting Documentation

Keep your loved one's income tax returns and related records for at least three years. This includes keeping records like W-2s, business receipts, and other related documents. 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) cannot audit a dead taxpayer. However, they can come after family members and beneficiaries of the estate. Keep all tax documents in a secure place until you have closed the estate.

Business and Financial Documents

Keep bank statements and other financial documents separate until the estate has been settled. Once you can close bank accounts, shred any remaining checks or sensitive papers.

Insurance Policies and Investment Documents

If your loved one had a life insurance policy, ask the issuing agent about filing a claim. Keep all paperwork related to annuities, stocks, bonds, pensions, and other investments.

Utility and Home Bills

You might need to switch utilities to your name only or close the account if you sell or lease your loved one's home. These account numbers will come in handy either way.

Social Security Cards and Passports

Keep your loved one's Social Security card, passport, and other forms of identification. Some financial institutions or government agencies might need them to settle the estate.

Military Discharge Papers and Commendations

If your loved one was a veteran, keep their discharge papers and any record of commendations, medals, or honors.

Tip 7: Create a Collection of Meaningful Items

As much as you might want to keep everything for sentimental reasons, you won't be able to keep everything. Many things will need to be donated or discarded. When you decide what to keep, donate, or discard, focus on the things that remind you most of your loved one. These things could be a favorite jacket, a book of poems, or a treasured piece of jewelry. 

Remember, they are only physical things. Your emotional connection to your loved one brings happiness, not the objects themselves.

Final Thoughts

Sorting through a loved one's belongings after their death is no easy task. It's natural to feel guilty for getting rid of certain items you think you should have kept. However, remember that your loved one would want you to find happiness and closure. 

You can explore memorialization options if you want a permanent place to visit your loved one. Many cemeteries offer affordable, respectful memorials like cremation gardens, traditional burial plots, vaults, or mausoleums. Find a nearby Afterall location here.

As you navigate life after a loss, it's important that you remember to take care of yourself. To learn more, take a look at our article: Why Staying Healthy While Grieving Should Be a Priority.