Handling inherited clutter, part 1

Inherited clutter can come in many forms, but usually it is accumulated in one of two ways:

  1. After the loss of a loved one, or
  2. When someone is moved into a smaller living space, such as a nursing home.

I have dealt with both situations, and can attest to their emotional strain. When my maternal grandparents suddenly passed away, everyone was stunned and grieving. Sorting through their out-dated coupons, years of saved wrapping paper, and my grandmother’s childhood doll collection was the last thing anyone in the family wanted to do. The next year, we had to move my paternal grandmother into an assisted living center, and the repercussions were just as severe. Lifetimes of possessions seemed to compound the grief, stress, anxiety, sadness, and seemingly endless waves of other emotions for everyone in the family.

In the coming days, I’m going to present a series of posts on the topic of inherited clutter. By no standard will these posts be completely exhaustive of the subject. Additionally, they won’t answer questions about funeral or nursing home arrangements. These posts will simply discuss objects that legally come into your possession or responsibility after one of the two above situations has occurred.


We get many questions like the following from readers:

How do you unclutter a person’s things after they die? My grandfather died this weekend, and we dread the idea of going through all his things—not just emotionally and psychologically, but from a logistical standpoint. How much stuff do we keep? Nobody has room in their houses for all the sentimental treasures of their departed loved ones, but it feels callous to throw away their old anniversary cards and favorite mediocre artwork. How do we deal with it all?

To begin the series, I want to address the key point in the reader’s question: How much stuff do we keep?

The answer: You are not obligated to keep any of the stuff.

You may decide that you want to keep some of it, but in most every situation you are not forced to do so. These objects are no longer your grandfather’s things. The objects are yours and should be treated in the same manner as you would your possessions.

Do the pants fit you? Are they a style you like? Will you wear them? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then you should donate the pants to charity or sell them.

There will be many situations, however, when the answer isn’t as obvious. I’ll share a story from my personal experience to illustrate my point. My maternal grandfather was a farmer. Unless he was going to church or bed, he wore overalls. Like Tom Wolfe has his white suits, my grandfather had his overalls. When it came time to cleaning out his closet after his death, our family was motionless. Seeing the overalls reminded us so much of him that we couldn’t bring ourselves to get rid of them. For days, we avoided the closet.

My aunt Lynda finally came up with the answer to the problem. She hired a photographer, had people put on pairs of my grandfather’s overalls, and everyone headed to a corn field. When the photo session was over, my aunt told people to keep the pair of overalls he or she was wearing. “Do with them as you wish,” she said. The overalls were no longer in the closet, and we now have treasured photographs of the family celebrating my grandfather’s life. If I had a dozen pair of quintessential overalls in my closet after my death, I would want my family to treat them in the exact same way.

As this series continues, keep in mind that there will be certain situations where my advice cannot be followed based on your particular circumstance. In most cases, though, if you treat your inherited objects in the same way you treat all of your other possessions, then the process of uncluttering will retain its perspective.

17 Comments for “Handling inherited clutter, part 1”

  1. posted by Andamom on

    When my stepmother passed away unexpectedly, I inherited my father’s irreplaceable art work and photographs because my father is in a nursing home and doesn’t have room for much. After the memorial service (in Florida), I headed (pregnant at the time) to their house with his friend who was handling the estate and debts. I did not want to touch anything else in the house because it all smelled like smoke (both were chain smokers). Yet, I did want the art. So, I packaged that up as best I could and sent it via UPS to my home in NYC.

    Looking at the art was a tremendous feeling. I had always wanted it — and decided to buy portfolios to keep it in better condition. Then, I created a website for it (http://posnerart.com) and hosted a gallery show for him this year here in NY.

    None of this came cheaply of course — and I now have these huge portfolios which take up a ton of space in a 2 bedroom apartment. The photographs were mostly condensed into a plastic crate (that is closed — preventing the smoke fumes from permeating the closet in which the crate sits), but it is just one more item that I have to consider.

    I am glad that I did not bring back anything else — but until I donate these works to a gallery — or sell a few, I am going to be minus space.

  2. posted by Joan in Dallas on

    I’d like to ask that people be careful when “de-cluttering” old files/stacks of paper inherited from relatives. What may look like a bonanza for the local recycling center might actually be irreplaceable family history. My sad story: My grandmother and mother were not on speaking terms, and when it came time for Grandma to go to a nursing home, she had a friend take care of the selling of her possessions. This friend, after saving what she thought were the valuable things, turned the house and its contents over to a company that sold the house, auctioned off its contents, and trashed what was left over. My grandfather’s genealogical research, which took him 30 years to compile, is now in a landfill somewhere because someone dumped “a bunch of old files” into the trash to empty a filing cabinet for sale.

  3. posted by young chang on

    That’s a great story about the overalls, and also great advice. It’s most difficult when there is an emotional attachment to objects.

  4. posted by meg on

    As an only child who inherited a mountain of family stuff after my father’s early death, I suggest going through the stuff every year or two. The first year after his death, I kept a bunch; the next time I went through it, I got rid of more, and so forth — each time, I find I can dispense with more. At this point, I have only a small box of papers (wills, marriage certificates, etc.) and photos.

  5. posted by Gretchen Rubin on

    When my parents moved, they got rid of a huge amount of stuff, and I’m so grateful that they did that work themselves. They kept the most important mementos and the stuff that was still actually useful. One great aspect of the goal of “uncluttering” is that you won’t be leaving a tangled nest of stuff for other people to sort through one day.

  6. posted by Paula on

    My parents both died in a week apart five years ago. I’m an only child, living at that time 1,000 miles away.

    The shock was greatly intensified by the long process (I spent four days a month on it for seven months) of going through their things, saving some, but mostly auctioning it off in a big one-day sale at the end run by a local professional auctioneer recommended by my father’s lawyer.

    I was finally OK with this (well, as OK as you can be, given the circumstances) because I got to spend that time saying “goodbye.” That was the best investment imaginable.

    During the seven month clean-out, I found and kept the family photos and my mom’s “hidden” jewelry, some cozy bedding that reminded me of the idea of “home”, some cookware my mother and I used together, etc.

    I couldn’t keep their antique furniture collection intact (not my taste, and no space) nor all their dishes, but I kept everyday stainless and do, in fact, use it every day. I also kept some lovely dessert plates and some keepsakes from my mother’s dresser. However, I do consider that the stuff could well break in ordinary use. If that occurs, I am also determined to treat it exactly as if something originally my own broke. OK, maybe a little extra pang of pain will stab me–but I vowed not to run a museum of the worst month of my life, and so far, I’ve really stuck to it.

    Sadly, much of the space you do have ends up going to things like inheritance tax paperwork, old house deeds, receipts for funeral expenses and other less than cheerful paperwork. Like the poster above, I am slowly reducing what remains of that. It was about 8 10-by-16″ office boxes, then 5, now 3.

    I also have vowed to live lightly in 1,000 square feet–no jammed closets or storage lockers, no “still good” but only semi-functional objects. I DON’T want anyone after me having to tunnel through tons of my stuff. It’s nice, it works, or it’s gone–inherited or not.

  7. posted by Denise on

    In the case of an extremely close relative or partner, the general wisdom is to make no major decisions in the first year. Some things are obvious and not really decisions. A box of moth-eaten crap marked for the Salvation Army to start with? A box of dirty napkins and loose potting soil(I found that once helping a friend)? Those are clear-cut tosses. A box of real jewelry? Keep. But most stuff you’re going to be unsure of. This is the only case in which I would advocate getting a storage unit and putting things away for up to a year. After a year has passed you are in a better emotional state to deal with it, and it also gives a fair chance for the potential importance of some objects to surface. My husband did this with his brother’s possessions and did not regret it. I did not do it with my mother’s and seven years later, I still find my thoughts wandering to the questions of where the photos went, where the genealogy went, what did I do with grandma’s jewelry,etc. And because of the state I was in, I honestly don’t remember.

  8. posted by Sherry on

    Thank you for this. I can’t wait to read the rest of your posts about this. I have a lot of things that I keep because I feel like I should because they were important to various family members and I’m not always sure if I actually want them.

  9. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    Another Tip for Dealing with Paperwork from an estate:
    Pay close attention to medical files. Although you may not think Granny’s trips to the doctor were very interesting, it could provide important information for YOUR medical history and that of your children.

  10. posted by Tara on

    I’d like to second the “do nothing for a year” theory – I have very few clear memories of the time after my dad’s death. If I hadn’t had a friend to tell me to wait for a year and just put it all in boxes, I’m sure I would have lost more than a few things I had no idea I would value. And now I still have clothes with his smell, which is wonderfully priceless.

  11. posted by AJ on

    Any suggestions on finding out if inherited things are esp. valuable and finding a trustworthy middleman to help you sell? It’s fair for the middle man to make a profit, but I would like to be fairly treated as well. It’s not something most of us do, so hard to know where to start.

  12. posted by Elle Kasey on

    I may have inherited the Mother of All Clutter. My aunt was the family genealogist and my father and grandfather were both lifelong newspaper reporters and editors. They also did a fair amount of recreational and attempted for-profit writing on the side. I have thousands of newspaper articles spanning more than 50 years scattered through hundreds of newspapers. Not only am I figuring out the challenge of scanning unwieldy shapes but also how to store and organize them. But, once I contained the clutter (which came to me in every shape and condition cardboard box and plastic bag) I started to feel more at ease, that I could chip away at it over time. I was pleased with my clutter solution to old recipes – I had one relative who hadn’t assumed the clutter mountain, who was pleading for “stuff”. I found many of the recipes verbatim online and pasted them into recipe organization software. The rest I entered into the software. Then I assembled all the recipes in a photo album and gifted them to the relative. Now they’re contained, they’re gone, and the relative feels gifted.

  13. posted by Cliff on

    My mom and dad are horrendously cluttered, not only in their home but also in their work days and their “philosophies” about life. Can’t get project A done, since someone called about projects B, C, D. If I ever hear, “Well, that didn’t get done. We just couldn’t get it together!” ever again I’ll simply scream. It’s why I never got music lessons as a kid, why my work life is perpetually unfulfilling — I want to play music, but I have no facility at any instrument, because I started too late. Thanks to clutter. Grr.

    I’m (obviously as a form of rebellion) therefore a neat-nik. I sometimes stress by just THINKING about having to, some day in the distant future, sort and clean out their THREE obscenely cluttered homes. And I and they are all three of us only children, so there aren’t any siblings or cousins to help.

    I know I’ll miss my folks when they’re gone. But I’m going to take all their ornamental pots out to a driving range and just whack them to smithereens! I’m sure that, when one of them does go, I will have to take a six-month leave of absence from whatever job I’m in simply to DEAL. With the clutter, as well as the loss. Then I’ll get to have guitar lessons for the first time in my life … :(

  14. posted by Cindy on

    Lands end, this whole topic is a roller coaster. Do I keep it? Do I pitch it? I just spent two months in Florida cleaning out my parents house. Only to find bank statements back to 1968, arghhhh. I did bring a shredder with me.

    I read every letter that my parents saved from my early childhood. This was family history that we will never see again. Hand written letters. The grammer and structure of letters that we will never see due to the quick lol’s and the abreviated spelling for texting and spell check. Photos of people I will never know. I found my fathers original death certificate mixed in with reciepies that mom had cut out of magazines. Medicare papers back to 1989. Books, books, books.

    After this experience I am going to take a month off and declutter my house. Please don’t do this to your children. It took everyday for two months to go through everything. I mean go through everything. Flipping every page of every book to see if another important paper is to be found.

    Talk to your children where you keep all of the important papers and bank accounts and the accountants name that you use. Do it and do it now!!! DO NOT leave a puzzle to be put together bacause that one piece will for ever be missing. Like the combination to the safe and where that key is.

    Tears, Joy and memories are abound. Good luck to anyone that has to endure this process…

  15. posted by Cliff on

    Please tell my parents, “Please don’t do this to your children.”

  16. posted by A. on

    Joan from Dallas: that was a VERY good point.

    And to all those who don’t know what to do with photos of people they “will never know” – there is a website (at least one that I know of) where you can “donate” those photos. They will put them online, so that the emotional and/or purely documentary charge is not lost, at least not entirely. I don’t remember the name of the website right now, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find it via Google.

    Those ARE invaluable documents of lives and loves past, even if somebody alien isn’t in the position to fully appreciate them.

  17. posted by Pam on

    I appreciate all this give and take. I am overwhelmed with inherited posessions – it is not easy and it is helpful to hear that I am not alone!!! Also, knowing that it’s ok to still be dealing with it all a year later gives me less angst. Thank you everyone.

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