If you have to allocate someone’s belongings after they’ve passed away, you might not know how to begin—and that’s totally understandable.
Personal items like furniture, jewelry, artwork, photographs, and housewares are harder to distribute than money. Whereas money is easily divided up equally, the value of personal possessions is more challenging to nail down.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Understanding Probate Law
- Step 2: Personal Property vs. Real Property
- Step 3: Take an Inventory
- Step 4: Get Appraisals
- Step 5: Calculate the Value
- Step 6: Make Copies of Photos and Videos
- Step 7: Gather Everyone Together
- Step 8: Take Turns
- Step 9: Communicate
- Dividing Up Personal Property: FAQs
Whether they had many personal items or only a few, distributing a loved one’s belongings after death is no easy task. And if you’re the beneficiary or heir, that responsibility is yours.
Below, we’ll provide a step-by-step guide for allocating personal belongings after death.
Step 1: Understanding Probate Law
Before you go any further, it’s important to make sure you have the legal right to distribute your loved one’s belongings. Matters related to distributing property after someone dies are managed in probate court.
The probate process can be relatively simple or very complicated. This depends largely on whether or not the decedent left a legal will or not.
If the decedent had a will…
You’ll need to be named the executor of the will or as the beneficiary in order to gain control of the person’s property.
If the decedent didn’t have a will…
You need to qualify as an heir to manage the person’s real and personal property.
If you’re not sure who has the responsibility of managing your loved one’s estate (everything they owned at the time of death), it’s usually best to hire a lawyer for help.
Probate law varies from state to state, and the process differs based on your relationship to the person. Here’s an example of the probate laws in the State of California.
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Step 2: Personal Property vs. Real Property
There are two different types of property that you might have to manage: personal property and real property.
- Personal property includes items like jewelry, clothing, furniture, and cars. It also includes stocks and cash.
- Real property is land and buildings that your loved one owned.
Both personal property and real property are part of a decedent’s estate. If they created an estate plan, both types of property should be included.
In this article, we’re discussing primarily personal property. If your loved one owned real property, including a home, and he or she didn’t leave specific instructions for that property, you’ll likely need help from a probate lawyer.
Step 3: Take an Inventory
Before you start divvying up personal items, it’s crucial to take stock of everything you have. You don’t need to include a separate line item for each and every knick-knack and belonging, but be as specific as you can.
Here’s an example of what part of your inventory might look like:
- Small household appliances (~$445.00)
- Toaster oven (~$20)
- Microwave (~$75)
- Blender (~$50)
- Food processor (~$50)
- Espresso machine(~$250)
- Photo albums (three) (~$0)
- Sectional sofa (grey) (~$1,000)
- Cutlery (approximately 30 pieces) (Awaiting appraisal)
As you’re going through the home taking an inventory, make a special note of anything that seems valuable. For example, artworks might be worth very little or worth a lot. Cutlery might be made of real silver or not. Jewelry may contain precious jewels, or it might not.
Step 4: Get Appraisals
Next, you can get those potentially-valuable items appraised by a professional. Find someone in your local area or nearby who has a good reputation for accuracy.
You might want to hire a few different appraisers for different types of personal property. For example, one appraiser might specialize in antique books, while another specializes in jewelry.
A useful tool for finding a professional appraiser in your area is the Appraisal Institute website and search tool.
Step 5: Calculate the Value
The previous two steps are important not only in divvying up the person’s belongings but also in following probate law.
If you find that the person’s property (including personal and real property) totals less than $100,000, you might not have to go through the probate process.
However, if the estate is valued at more than $100,000, you’ll likely need to go through the court system to make sure you can legally distribute their belongings.
This depends on the state where the decedent lived, your relationship to the decedent, the decedent’s will, and other factors.
Step 6: Make Copies of Photos and Videos
Photos and videos have personal sentimental value, but that value isn’t necessarily tied to the original copy. Whenever you can, carefully copy photos and videos onto storage devices like CDs and thumb drives.
It’s also a good idea to start storing any important documents you find, including the original photos and videos, in protective containers.
You can create an online storage space for your loved one’s videos and photos, as well. In can serve as an online memorial site, and you can provide the password to family members who would like access.
Step 7: Gather Everyone Together
If you can, get everyone together at the house or storage unit where you have the decedent’s personal belongings. This will make it easier for family members to put their names on things that they’d like to keep.
If you can’t get everyone together physically due to geographic and time limitations, try to get together on a video call. You can even walk everyone through the home and show them items via video.
Step 8: Take Turns
There might be only a couple of people who want to claim personal belongings, or there might be more. You might even be the only beneficiary, in which case you can skip this step.
If multiple people want to claim items, you can take turns choosing. This might happen in person, or it might take place over a phone or video call, as mentioned above. Each person should pick a number and a color. Use colored stickers to mark the items each person wants.
Then, you can either draw numbers out of a hat for each round of item-picking, or you can go in a specified order (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). If you go in a specified order rather than choosing randomly, make sure to switch up the order each time.
Step 9: Communicate
If someone chooses an item that has significant importance to you, or vice-versa, it’s essential to open up a line of honest communication. No one should leave the process with hurt feelings, even if they end up missing out on an item they really wanted.
See if you can negotiate a trade whenever possible. If you still disagree, set the item aside for the time being. One or both of the parties might change their mind once they see something else they want more, or once emotions have settled.
Dividing Up Personal Property: FAQs
If you’re in charge of dividing up a loved one’s personal property, you might want answers to some of the frequently asked questions below:
Does each item have to go through probate?
No, not all items have to go through probate. The decedent could have created a trust or otherwise arranged their property in a way that circumvents probate laws.
Additionally, many states allow you to avoid probate court if the estate is worth less than $100,000 in total.
What personal belongings do children usually keep after a death?
The items you choose to keep when a parent dies are deeply personal and individual. Everyone has different priorities when it comes to what they want to keep, and what they’d rather not.
Most people, however, hold onto photos and other personal belongings that have sentimental worth. Anything you’d like to pass down to your own children is also worth keeping.
It can be extremely difficult to donate or throw out your own parent’s personal belongings after they’ve died. However, keeping the items that hold the most sentimental value can help you overcome these feelings of guilt. You can’t hold onto everything, but you can hold onto a few things that have greater meanings.
How long do you have to wait to start divvying up the deceased’s items?
When someone dies, you have to wait until the will has been reviewed before you start distributing personal belongings.
As mentioned above, you may or may not have the right to do so. You’ll also need to take an inventory of the person’s belongings and have some items appraised to determine the overall worth of the estate.
If you’re not sure when you can get started divvying up personal belongings, it’s best to speak with a probate lawyer.
What happens if there’s a conflict over a specific item?
If there’s a conflict over a personal item that doesn’t have significant monetary value, you might be able to come to a resolution privately. See if you can trade one item for another.
If the item has monetary value, you’ll need to refer to probate law to determine how to proceed.
Grief and Dealing with Personal Belongings
It’s essential to strike a balance when you’re in charge of dividing up someone’s personal belongings after death. You don’t want to drag the process out for years, but you also don’t want to overwhelm yourself trying to do it all within a month.
In these situations, a storage unit or basement can be your best friend. While you’re going through the probate process, or simply coping with the loss you’ve just experienced, put everything aside for a couple of weeks. It will still be there when you’re ready to get started. (Just make sure you do get started, eventually.)
- “What happens to someone’s property when they die?” Courts.ca.gov. www.courts.ca.gov/partners/documents/probate_death.pdf
- Sember, Brette. “Do all wills go through probate?” Legal Zoom. August 2014. www.legalzoom.com/articles/do-all-wills-need-to-go-through-probate