Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho
I walked into his apartment after Sam died. It looked the same, as if he had just stepped out for a short time. Each item was in its usual place. The curtains, made by his sister, were pulled back, letting the winter sun brighten the living room. Sam was a widower with no children.
Then everything shifted. I started with the family paintings he wanted sent to a cousin in Florida. Once those were set aside, the place was no longer Sam’s home. The apartment became a series of rooms filled with items, each to be handled, distributed or tossed. The task became a combination of overwhelming heartache and work.
Is there a way to make this process easier? Certainly having Sam’s list of personal items he wanted to be distributed to specific people was a great help. Knowing that he wanted the paintings sent to his cousin gave me clear instructions on what he wanted to happen to those family treasures. His list covered a gun, china set, and two cedar chests. That was all. The question is what to do with the rest of the household items? Touching each item takes a lot of time.
There are different approaches people take. One is to have the person responsible for the estate, the Personal Representative or Trustee, go through all the items and make a decision about the disposition of each item – sell it, throw it out, give it to charity or give it to an individual (if the decedent’s estate papers allow for that personal discretion.) If children are receiving the estate in equal shares, they can sometimes agree on how to divide up household items. Another approach is to arrange an auction and have all the items sold.
Dismantling the home has to occur, but it can feel as if the persona of a loved one is being erased, leaving an empty space.