Many people describe feeling lost when they lose their last parent. No matter how many other meaningful relationships you have in your life, you still might feel unattached or untethered as soon as you no longer have a living parent. That's why cleaning out your parent's house after a death may feel incredibly difficult.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Stop All of Your Parent’s Services
- Step 2: View All Paperwork
- Step 3: Put Family Mementos and Photographs to the Side
- Step 4: Gather Your Siblings
- Step 5: Consider How Household Items Could Be Made Into Something Special
- Step 6: Divide Household Items Into Piles
- Step 7: Sell Any Vehicles and Cancel the Insurance
- Step 8: Discard Paint, Household Chemicals, and Prescription Medicine Responsibly
- Step 9: Go Through Personal Family Items with Your Siblings
- Step 10: Decide What to Do with the House
Not only do you have to deal with the complicated emotions that accompany losing your last parent, but you’ll also have a long “to-do” list. First, you must take care of the immediate responsibility of planning a funeral. Then, if your parents took care of estate planning (which they hopefully did to avoid probate court), you need to follow all the desires they spelled out in their will.
Once those items are taken care of, you’ll need to clean out your parents’ home. Here are some things to consider as you begin this emotional job.
Step 1: Stop All of Your Parent’s Services
Think about all the services your parent may have been receiving. You will need to contact each of these individuals and companies to share the news of your parent’s death.
Perhaps your parent received Meals on Wheels or physical or occupational therapy in the home. Did your parent receive his or her medication through an online pharmacy or a delivery service? You will need to cancel all of these services immediately.
Besides stopping these personal services, you also need to consider what household services your parent may have scheduled. Did they have a housekeeper or personal assistant? Did your parent have the local newspaper delivered? Have you forwarded all mail to your address or your sibling’s address?
Tip: Consider whether stopping all of your parents’ scheduled services is a good idea or not. For example, you should probably keep paying the lawn care company as you sort through the estate plan. Maybe you also want to keep paying for your parent’s cellphone service and home phone service until all immediate business is resolved. You might also want to keep paying for internet access while you clean.
Step 2: View All Paperwork
The next step in cleaning out your parent’s home is to go through the paperwork. This may be a tedious process and one that should be completed by one of the more meticulous people in the family. It’s crucial to start with the paperwork because you may discover assets or debts that need to be considered as you divide up the estate.
- Go through each sheet of paper in every file. Keep a shredder next to you but don’t shred everything.
- Look for current bills. Keep your parent’s will or trust, life insurance policies, real estate deeds, stock certificates, and retirement account statements. Keep tax returns and documents you will need for filing next year’s income tax.
- Keep items that may be sentimental, such as your parents’ marriage license or immigration papers. Keep diplomas and baptism certificates. Set those items aside in a separate container labeled “family memorabilia.”
- Shred old statements, receipts for consumable items, and canceled checks. In the first run-through of the house, it is better to keep back paperwork that you are unsure of instead of disposing of it.
Tip: Keep a container of file folders handy so you can organize the documents that you decide to keep.
Step 3: Put Family Mementos and Photographs to the Side
Do not attempt to go through each photo or family memento at this time. This will slow down the process of clearing out the house.
Instead, carefully place the photo albums, sentimental paperwork, invitations, newspaper clippings, cards, and letters in plastic storage containers to be sorted later.
Share your final wishes, just in case.
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Step 4: Gather Your Siblings
Unfortunately, family relationships are often destroyed when siblings gather to go through their parents’ things — particularly those with sentimental or economic value. Do not let this happen to your family. Money is never more important than your relationship with your sibling(s).
First, do everything you can to make sure that each sibling can gather at the same time in your parent’s house. Go with an open heart and a compromising attitude.
If you're concerned that fights may occur over some of the items in your parent’s home, create a strategy that will work for your family. You may choose to only have siblings participate in the cleanup. In-laws and grandchildren may complicate an already difficult task.
Tip: Ask each sibling to make a list of the top three items they would like from the estate. Share the lists with your brothers and sisters and compromise.
Step 5: Consider How Household Items Could Be Made Into Something Special
Before you get rid of all the household items, you may consider how those everyday pieces could be made into something special to help commemorate your parents’ lives.
For example, maybe your mom’s embroidered pillowcases can be made into a doll for her granddaughters. Maybe you create a pillow from one of your dad’s signature shirts.
Tip: Look on Pinterest for ideas of how to use items that remind you of your parents.
Step 6: Divide Household Items Into Piles
After you have removed all of the items that your family members want to keep, come up with a strategy to get rid of household items. It may be best for your siblings to work together as you make these decisions.
- Create an “estate sale” pile, an “online sale” pile, a “donate” pile, and have large containers for trash and recycling. Estate sales are the perfect way to bring in extra cash to the estate and also get rid of household furnishings. Sell appliances, furniture, dishes, home decor, and other household items at the estate sale. Sell the items in the garage, such as shovels, tools, and gardening equipment.
- Was your parent a collector? You might choose to sell some of his or her belongings online. Ask one of your siblings to be in charge of selling the items on eBay.
- Donate unsold items to charity. You may attempt to sell all of the household items at the estate or garage sale.
- Finally, recycle and throw away broken or unusable items.
Tip: Before you get rid of your parent’s clothes, make sure you search each pocket — there could be valuables in places you would not expect. Also, how many times do you find cash in your own coat pocket at the beginning of the next season?
Check jackets and ties for brooches and tie pins that may have been left on the article of clothing the last time your parent wore it.
Step 7: Sell Any Vehicles and Cancel the Insurance
You may sell the vehicles through the estate sale or an online marketplace. As soon as the car is off the property, cancel the insurance.
Step 8: Discard Paint, Household Chemicals, and Prescription Medicine Responsibly
Chances are that your elderly parent had a lot of paint, chemicals, prescriptions, and over-the-counter medicine in the home.
Check with your city or county for ways to dispose of these items. Do not put any of the items in a regular trash receptacle and don’t flush prescription meds down the toilet.
Step 9: Go Through Personal Family Items with Your Siblings
Once all the household items are gone, go through the personal items with your family members. Discuss a strategy to preserve photos and documents so all members of the family can have access to them.
Tip: Do not throw family photos away. Someone in your extended family or subsequent generations may want them. Take care to preserve them. Your future generations will thank you.
Step 10: Decide What to Do with the House
If your parent still owned a home at the time of his or her death, you and your siblings will need to decide what to do with it.
Some of your siblings may want to sell the property as soon as possible and others may want to be a little savvier when selling the home. Your brother might be happy to take any price for the house but your sister may want to complete upgrades, renovations, and pay for staging so the estate gets the best price.
These decisions are difficult because they involve finances and emotions. Some siblings may not care about the money, but may struggle to sell the house because of an emotional connection. Others may be dependent on the inheritance for retirement.
Approach these discussions delicately if you care about preserving your relationship with your siblings and extended family.
Getting It Right
Losing your first parent is extremely difficult and losing your last parent can be devastating. There’s a silver lining, though: You learn a lot when you experience your last parent’s death. You learn what to say to others when someone dies.
You learn the importance of your relationship with your siblings. Finally, you may even learn how not to value “stuff” as much (this may be one of the most important lessons you learn).