Sorting out someone’s belonging after they’ve died isn’t easy. You’ll need to deal with legal and practical considerations, as well as the emotions it may bring up.
This article covers many of the things you need to think about, as well as tips to help make it a bit more manageable.
What happens to belongings after death?
This depends on whether the person who has died left a will or a last wishes document, or if they left no requests at all. We’ve covered each scenario below.
If the person left a will
Their will should name an executor. It’s the executor’s job to deal with dividing someone’s possessions after death, according to the instructions in the will.
A will usually focuses on high-value possessions such as money and property. However, it may also tell you how to divide up lower-value items such as books, jewellery and furniture. These low-value possessions are called ‘chattels’ or ‘fittings’.
For instance, it might ask for chattels to be divided equally among the person’s children. Or it may gift individual items to certain people. These individual gifts are called ‘specific legacies’.
Any other items are part of the ‘residue of the estate’. They’re meant to be divided equally between people called ‘residual beneficiaries’, who should be named in the will.
A will is a legally binding document. This means you must follow its instructions by law.
If the person didn’t leave a will
If there was no will, the person is said to have died ‘intestate’. When this happens, someone will need to be appointed as the administrator of the estate. The administrator makes sure personal possessions are divided up according to a set of rules called the ‘rules of intestacy’.
These rules vary depending on where you live. Here are guides for different parts of the UK:
- What to do if someone dies without a will in Scotland
- What to do if someone dies without a will in Northern Ireland
- What to do if someone dies without a will in England or Wales
If the person left last wishes
Even if the person didn’t leave a will, they may have written a letter explaining what they wanted to happen when they die. This letter is called their ‘last wishes’ or a ‘letter of wishes’.
Sometimes, last wishes have instructions for dividing up personal items. However, unlike wills, they aren’t legally binding. If the person left a will and a last wishes document, you must follow the instructions in the will first.
What to do with belongings after death
Are you the executor or administrator of a person’s estate? You might be wondering what to do next.
Here’s a step-by-step to dealing with personal belongings after death.
1. Secure the person’s home
If the person has recently died, you should make sure their home is secure and their belongings are safe. Lock all doors and windows and throw away any perishable items like fruit, vegetables and milk.
2. Sort through and itemise their belongings
This part of the process can be very difficult. Sorting through a person’s belongings is not only hard work, but it can also stir up painful emotions.
Don’t rush into it – give yourself time to process your grief. If you’re under pressure because the person’s house is being sold, you may want to consider placing their possessions in storage until you feel ready.
These tips should help make it a bit more manageable:
- Ask for help: see if relatives or friends can help you. You’ll get the job done faster and you’ll have people around to provide emotional support.
- Get supplies ready: you’ll need cardboard boxes, labels, pens, gloves and cleaning equipment. Make sure you have some refreshments for you and your helpers too.
- Prioritise and plan: it’s a good idea to break the job into smaller parts and decide who does what. Perhaps you could split off into different rooms or tackle one room together at the same time.
- Allow yourself time to reflect: sorting through belongings can bring out happy memories as well as sad ones. Make sure you give yourself enough time to reflect on those emotions and the good times you shared.
3. Get a value estimate for the estate
If you’re acting as executor, you’ll need to find out the value of the person’s estate. This includes property, savings and shares, as well as personal possessions. You may want to ask for professional help from a solicitor to do this.
It’s important to get an accurate valuation because the value of the estate affects the amount of inheritance tax you pay. But valuing personal items can also help you share them fairly between people named in the will.
4. Share out their possessions
This is where the person’s will or the rules of intestacy are important. You’ll need to give individual gifts to the named people and divide everything else between the residual beneficiaries.
There are no legal guidelines that tell you how to do this. If there are no specific instructions in the will, it’s up to you and the beneficiaries to decide who gets what.
As a rule of thumb, you can divide belongings according to their financial value. But it isn’t always this easy. If an item has strong sentimental value, for instance, people may disagree about who should inherit it.
Sometimes, these disagreements are inevitable. But there are a few things you can do to try to keep things fair and avoid arguments:
- Ask people to make lists of the things they want, ranked from ‘most wanted’ to ‘least wanted’. This can help you decide who is most attached to a sentimental item.
- Get people to mark the possession they want with colour-coded stickers. If an item has only one sticker, it goes to the corresponding person.
- Use pretend money. Each beneficiary gets a certain amount to ‘spend’ on items they want, depending on their share of the estate.
If people can’t come to an agreement despite all your efforts, you can sell the items and share the money between them.
5. Sell or donate unwanted items
As well as items that everyone wants, there will probably be possessions that nobody wants. These can be sold, donated to charity or given up for recycling.
If items are valuable but have no sentimental value, you could sell them privately. This category might include things like unwanted jewellery, ornaments and collections.
You can sell items online through sites like eBay or Facebook Marketplace. But for items with niche appeal, you may be better off selling through a specialist auction or website. For instance, you might make more money selling vinyl records on a collectors’ site like Discogs.
If items are usable and in good condition, you could donate them to a local charity or charity shop. They’ll often take clothes, furniture, music and ornaments, among other things. If you’re donating a large item, they might even send someone to pick it up.
Giving items for recycling
You’re likely to end up with some items that must be thrown away. You can throw these out yourself, but it can be hard and emotional work. If there are lots of things to deal with, you may have to hire a van and make several trips to the local tip, where items can often be recycled.
Another option is to hire a house-clearance company. For a small fee, they can remove unwanted items and deal with them for you.
More useful guides
- Dealing with probate after someone dies
- What happens to debt when you die?
- What happens to pets when their owners die or become ill?
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