In the days following a loved one’s death, even the most mundane things make us think of them. And while their possessions can serve as valuable momentos, they can also act as painful reminders that they’re gone.
Plus, when a person passes away, there’s a laundry list of things that need to be taken care of.
This article is mostly about physical items, but if you have questions about everything else you’re responsible for when someone passes away, including what probate is, you should read this article.
So what do you do with someone's stuff after they die? Can you just get rid of things?
We’ll cover two main questions here: first, what things can you get rid of, sell, or gift? Second, what should you do with the things you decide not to keep?
What Can You Do With Someone's Stuff After They Die?
As is usually the case with legal matters, the answer is, it depends.
Generally, you cannot get rid of anything of value right away. The size of the estate and specific “asset types” (what kind of titling and ownership something has) determines if the estate needs to be probated, which is just the name for the legal process of distributing someone’s stuff, paying the right taxes, and officially dissolving an estate.
If the estate does go through probate, it’s possible that (1) there are things in the will that the deceased wanted to go to someone specifically and (2) some of the assets may be sold to pay off debts.
So what you can get rid of largely depends on two things: the size of the estate and the deceased’s will.
Question #1 — What is the size of the estate?
The first question you need to ask is about the size of the estate. If the total value of probate assets for an estate are below a certain threshold, you can sometimes avoid probate altogether, or at least go through a less intense version.
An estate that doesn’t have to go through probate is considered “small.” The threshold for what counts as a small estate differs from state to state (e.g. $50,000 in Nebraska vs. $100,000 in Washington State vs. $166,250 in California).
For tips on determining the size of the deceased’s estate, see the section on inventory below.
If the deceased’s estate has a monetary value less than the threshold for the state where they lived when they died, it’s possible to file a small estate affidavit — a document written and signed under oath that says the estate qualifies as a small estate.
Though the process varies from state to state, usually, the deceased’s property may then be distributed according to the deceased’s will.
If they didn’t have a will, then it depends on what’s known as intestate law. More on that in a second
Once you receive your inheritance, you may keep, sell, donate, or do anything else you want with the stuff.
Question #2 — What does the deceased's will say?
One of the first things you’ll need to do after someone dies is find the deceased’s will — a written statement dictating how they want their matters handled when they pass away. Depending on the contents of the will, many of the decisions about what to keep or give away may already be made for you.
If the deceased left specific instructions about anything they own, the executor of the will, also known as the personal representative, will work with the courts to ensure those instructions are carried out as much as possible.
Again, once things are officially left to you through probate, you are welcome to keep or sell them as you like.
But what if the deceased doesn’t have a will?
If someone you know died “intestate” (without a will), they’re not alone. A 2016 Gallup poll found that more than half of Americans don’t have a will. The poll found that while younger people are more likely to die without a will, it’s a problem for every age group.
If your loved one passed away and didn’t leave a will, the next of kin must file for probate. The court will then appoint an executor for the estate and use the laws of their state to determine who inherits what.
If a person dies without a will, unfortunately, you can’t just keep or sell their things. Their estate will still need to go through probate or the process for small estates.
What should you do with the stuff you choose not to keep?
When you do start the process of sorting someone’s things, you’ll find things that you’ll want to keep, but you’ll also find things that would fit better in someone else’s home . . . or maybe that should be retired or recycled.
For those items, creating an inventory, making sure to include your family in the process, and donating to charity are three things that can make the process easier.
Even after probate, sorting through something’s things can be an emotional process. You don’t have to push through and do this all yourself. Close friends or extended family members often want to help in some way as you go through the grieving process. This is an area where they could offer their support.
If you’ve ever sorted someone’s things before (even just by helping someone move), you know that people collect a lot of stuff over the years. If someone has lived in the same house for a while, it’s likely that they have things even they don’t know about.
Even if you don’t plan to or can’t get rid of a person’s things, you should take an inventory of what they had. This inventory is beneficial for several reasons:
- An inventory helps you know what they had. Knowing what assets a person had helps you know the worth of the estate (which may help determine whether it qualifies as a small estate) and help you keep track of the deceased’s assets.
- An inventory can help with probate proceedings because you have a list of assets. If the deceased left a will, an inventory will help identify the items that need to be distributed. If they didn’t, it will help the court determine who will inherit what.
- An inventory can help facilitate family discussion about the deceased’s assets. It’s likely that family members will want one or more of the items, usually for sentimental reasons. An inventory will help everyone communicate clearly about what they think is important to keep.
An inventory can be as simple or elaborate as you would like, but it should include at least the item and an approximate estimation of its monetary worth. For an easy and modern way to organize your asset list, along with all the specific forms you’ll need during probate, you can use Atticus.
Consult with family members
The process of getting rid of someone’s stuff can be a difficult one because it requires you to make so many decisions. Bringing in a family member to help make some of those decisions can make it easier. And as long as involving family won’t be painful or cause fights, working with them to sort and make decisions can strengthen relationships and possibly replace some of the negative memories surrounding this task with positive ones.
Donate to charity
Were there any causes or charities that the deceased actively supported? You might consider reaching out to them to see if you can donate anything the deceased left behind. Charities and nonprofits need donations to operate, and donating some of your loved one’s things allows them to continue their support even after they’ve left this life.
Remember: you don’t own anything until debts are paid
In conclusion, if you’re early in the process, you may not be able to do much with a deceased loved one’s things other than reorganize, relocate, and categorize them.
The timeline will depend largely on the size of the estate and the will left behind, and for each state, the process will work a little differently.
Even if you start selling things, the estate may owe money to creditors, and if they request to be paid after being notified, you will have to give them that money. It’s best to take probate step by step to ensure you aren’t liable for any surprise debts down the line.
But there are steps that you can take to make the process easier. Make an inventory. Invite family members to help. Donate what you can to a charity or cause that the deceased supported.
Finally, it’s important that you don’t get so caught up in what you’re doing for someone else that you forget to take care of yourself. If the process is hard, that’s normal. Don’t get so focused on making all the right decisions that you neglect your own needs.
Wishing you all the best.