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How Family Caregivers Can Deal With Aging Parents' Accumulation of ‘Stuff’

Make plans on how to distribute, donate or ditch personal property now, to avoid legal hassles later

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Dag Sundberg

Many articles on the internet discuss how younger generations don’t want to inherit their parents’ and grandparents’ belongings. For people entering their later years or who are caregiving for older adults, addressing what to do with possessions that won’t be passed down to heirs can be a monumental task.

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My parents were in their 60s when they died, so I hadn’t thought about whether I wanted their belongings. My husband and I had just gotten married and consolidated our individual households into a tiny starter home. Suddenly, we had to fit even more stuff into our lives. It took me two years to dig through it all.

Wherever you are in your life span or caregiving experience, it’s never too soon to take a good look around and start making decisions about what is no longer serving the household or its occupants and where it should all go in life — and in death.

Hire assistance

A home organizing company will whittle through overstuffed closets, rarely opened boxes and kitchens full of unused cookware. The cost can be affordable and save you hours of time and backaches. The company may also assist with options to donate or sell what you’re not planning to keep. Selling some of your lesser- or never-used possessions will put money in your pocket with the added benefit of making space at home.

Scanning services can reduce papers, photographs and documents that are filling your cabinets and drawers. I inherited 100 years of family pictures and albums, which were kept in large storage bins. It’s been 11 years, and I still haven’t finished going through them. My husband scanned a box of them as a gift to me. It took him months — and then he realized there were several boxes to go. We’ll be hiring a scanning service or computer-capable person to finish the job. The plan is to give some of the original photos or documents away to family, dump the rest, and keep a small portion of the most sentimental originals. I may make a sweet photo book of kids’ artwork through the years or make another creative gift with the treasures currently stored away.

If you’re the caregiver helping with the paring down or hiring someone to do the legwork, approach all of this with the appropriate sensitivity. Many people are deeply attached to their things. They tell the story of a lifetime.  

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Gifting in your lifetime

The saying goes, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” But many of us have things in our home we are not using or may not even like. If you’re fortunate enough to have more than you need, spread the wealth. Shelters and organizations that get families back on their feet always need extra household items in good condition.

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If you’re in a stage of giving up activities that no longer fit your lifestyle or abilities, think about where your loved ones’ interests lie. My husband’s grandfather taught him to golf. He gave my husband his trusty old putter — it looks and probably is 80 years old. But my husband loves to play with it and always thinks of his beloved granddad when he putts.

If you can’t think of a person who’d want your possessions, consider making a charitable contribution to an organization that could use or display them. This is especially true of collectibles — which millennials and younger folks don’t gravitate to. My mom, a pharmacist by trade, loved her antique apothecary jars and mortars and pestles. Although I’ve kept a few, they don’t look right in my home. Rather than keeping them, I’ll be reaching out to her college to donate them to their collections.

Stop the storage

Many of my law firm’s clients still own the houses where their kids grew up. The homes are like museums for the artifacts of their kids’ childhoods. My auntie and uncle told me recently that they have boxes of toys in the attic, just in case the kids ever want them. Their kids are all in their 40s now, with their own homes and little ones. They’ve already gone through what they wanted to give their own kids, yet still the boxes sit in the rafters.

It’s a lovely thought to want to hang on to formerly beloved items. But the time must come to let them go and keep the memories. You may find that just asking, “Do you want this?” could be met with a resounding “No!” And then you can donate, sell, recycle or throw it away.

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Caregivers and family members may even do you a favor and just say yes to handle the getting-rid-of process for you. When my father-in-law died and my mother-in-law moved her residence, we didn’t have the heart to say no when she asked us to take things. So instead we just said yes and, with her permission, found a good charity to take them or another person who could use them.

Plan now, avoid problems later

You may not have the time, wherewithal or ability to pare down now. Or you may have already given away as much as you want to. Either way, you’ll still need to address your belongings as part of your estate plan.  And not to worry — you don’t need to put little pieces of tape with people’s names on everything you own.

If you write a will, it may reference your “tangible personal property.” Think of this as “anything that can be touched” that is not money, real estate or accounts — like cars, clothes, family heirlooms, jewelry and so on. I generally don’t list tangible personal property in my clients’ wills or trusts. Unless there’s something significantly valuable (like a fine art collection), we recommend writing a separate memorandum. This memorandum can list certain items and who you would like to have them. And you can change it as much as you want without changing your will or trust documents.

An important safety point: If you own firearms or weapons, then you must address them in your plan. A conversation should and must be had with your caregivers and loved ones about how they need to be handled and transferred. A lawyer can advise on the firearm inheritance laws in your state and with setting up a gun trust if needed.

You can write your estate plan to let your beneficiaries decide amongst themselves what to do with your tangible items. But they may not always agree. As a probate lawyer, I’ve seen families go toe-to-toe over valueless items. If they’re mad enough, they’ll fight over a rusty old spoon.

To keep them from fighting and keep the distribution fair, you can have your executor use a lottery system to let the beneficiaries choose what they want. Or, for items of value, a beneficiary can take a lesser share of other assets to equalize everyone’s inheritance. Whether you expect everyone to argue, or not care in the slightest, a safe bet is to give your executor sole and absolute discretion to decide who gets what, with authority to sell items and distribute the money.

Cleaning out another person’s lifetime of accumulated belongings can bring up good memories, but more often it’s burdensome. Your loved ones will surely thank you for thinking it through and giving them more ease in handling your final affairs by simplifying and organizing your possessions, so they don’t have to.

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