The Burden of Collections

I love going to estate sales.

I love looking through books from long ago. I like to see juice glasses like the ones my grandma set on her breakfast table, and framed pictures like those people had in their homes when I was little.

Since we downsized, I’ve learned to admire these things without buying them, because we simply don’t have the space for them. If I should find something I absolutely must have, I’ve promised myself that some item I currently own will have to leave the house before the “new” (to me) item can come in. That’s the only way I can stay on top of my possessions and not let them get out of control, as I once did.

Recently I went to the estate sale of an elderly lady. It was held in her 1930s frame two-story house, and run by a group of tired-looking middle-age women that I assumed to be her daughters and/or daughters-in-law, because they kept referring to “Mom” in their conversations.

They had done a great job of setting up the sale, and what a job it was! All through the house were tables covered with tablecloths and neatly arranged items for sale. I could barely walk around the L-shaped living/dining room full of tables without bumping into someone or something. Every surface was covered with stuff.

There had to be at least five long tables of glass and ceramic figurines, all neatly arranged and shiny, as if someone had recently cleaned them (what a job!) Along one wall was a long display of costume jewelry, many pieces in their original boxes, all priced individually. There were also tables with lamps, glass and metal ashtrays (remember them?), wall plaques and artificial flower arrangements. There was no furniture except a few chairs for the sellers to sit on; the furniture must have already been distributed within the family or sold before the sale.

The kitchen was packed to the gills with dishes, pots, cooking utensils, and other kitchen items, many with mushrooms on them. Apparently “Mom” was into the 1970s mushroom craze and had amassed quite a collection of mushroom-decorated items.

The rest of the house was filled in a similar fashion, with various collections displayed neatly and price tags on each item. I can’t imagine how hard those women worked to get that sale ready. But I have to wonder how they really felt about all of Mom’s collections because no one seemed to be choosing many of those items, buying more useful things like lamps, yard tools and clothes instead. If they didn’t mark down Mom’s collections toward the end of the sale, they were likely left with the items and more decisions to make about what to do with them. Ugh!

I once had quite a few collections myself. When we downsized, I still liked my collections and didn’t want to give them up. I put off making decisions about them for a while (there were certainly plenty of other things to do at that busy time anyways) until it finally occurred to me that there is no law that you have to keep a collection together, and that if I was honest with myself, I really preferred some items in my collections over others. Hence it was OK to break up my collections.

Once I made that realization, I could finally do what I needed to do. I reduced my teapot collection from dozens down to three. I reduced my enormous collection of back issues of Country Living down to one small stack of clippings after committing to flipping through a few issues while on my exercise bike each night and tearing out anything I just had to keep. I did the same thing with my many quilt magazines, some of which had been published in the 1980s (!)

Both my husband and I have always been bookworms, so we had hundreds of books, maybe more than 1,000, counting paperbacks. We gave up about 2/3 of them.

I won’t list my other collections that were broken up; to be honest, I can’t even remember all of the stuff we got rid of! But I’m doing just fine without it, and someday when I die, my kids won’t have to go through all of it like that elderly lady’s family did for her estate sale.

I sure felt sorry for those gals.

 

Clutter and Claustrophobia

I have claustrophobia, I hate clutter, and I think there’s a link between those two facts.

Not that I’ve always lived clutter-free; quite the opposite, in fact. There were many years that I had a basement overwhelmed with clutter. That was where I put it to keep it out of our living areas. I just didn’t have time to deal with it then, but the fact of its existence drove me crazy.

I didn’t learn that I was claustrophobic until I was in my 40s. Now I understand why I refuse to fly (those planes are so darn tiny inside, and the seating is so close together!), why I prefer an aisle seat at church or the movie theater, and why I like lots of space between me and the car ahead of me.

No wonder I hate seeing piles of stuff, stuff all over the floor or stuff all over the counters. I’m at peace when my desk is clear, my floors are clear and my counters are clear. When messes start piling up, I get a little cranky. I begin to feel a little…trapped.

I like space and freedom. When my basement work area is cluttered with fabric, or the remains of some craft project, I’m not happy. When the project is over and the tables are clear, my basement goes back to having possibilities: we can have the family over to eat there, we can wrap Christmas presents there, or the tables can be taken down to make a big open space for the little ones to run around when they come over.

Clutter-free zones make my little house feel larger and make me feel at peace instead of claustrophobic. I wonder how many other claustrophobic declutterers there are; we should form a club!

How to Divide an Estate Fairly Between Heirs

The challenge of dividing belongings (especially valuables) is that whether they’re worth more in cash, memories or both, many items are often wanted by more than one person.

In an ideal world, a parent already gave items to those they wanted to have them or made a list of items going to specific people, along with an explanation of why they made the choices they did. But that doesn’t usually happen. What’s more common is when foggy elderly people verbally promise one item to more than one person, resulting in conflict between heirs, sooner or later.

If you’re dealing with a living estate and want to eliminate future conflicts, you may be tempted to ask your parent to assign items to their heirs now and explain their choices. But that might be too much pressure for them, or they may no longer be mentally capable of doing so.

Whether it’s a living or inherited estate, when dividing your parent’s belongings, you’ll need to at least try to prevent fights among heirs.  While it’s not always possible to be perfectly fair, everyone should try to keep everything above board and to aim for fairness.

Here are 14 methods for dividing estates that have worked for other families. Choose whichever ones fit your situation best:

You Bought It, You Take It Back

Let everyone take back anything they gave to your parent. This includes birthday, anniversary and holiday gifts, plus anything they made for them. If they don’t want it back, it becomes part of the estate that others may want, or it can later be sold.

Take Turns

Heirs take turns choosing one item each until everyone has at least a few things they want. Order of choice can be based on birth order, by drawing straws or by throwing dice. This works especially well if the estate contains items that have more sentimental value than monetary value.

Take a Chance

Each time two or more heirs want an item, settle it by drawing cards (high card wins) or by throwing dice (highest total wins).

(Discover 11 more methods in my book, How to Clean Out Your Parents’ House (Without Filling Up Your Own), just 99 cents right now.)

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Who Gets Your Folks’ Belongings?

(The following is excerpted from my book, How to Clean Out Your Parents’ House (Without Filling Up Your Own), just 99 cents today at Amazon.)

Going through a parent’s estate is a minefield for families. At a time when family members are at their most emotional and vulnerable, they have to make decisions that can cause all sorts of dissension and stress… unless their late parent left specific instructions regarding who gets their belongings. In the majority of cases, that didn’t happen.

So most families have the job of fairly and amicably working out who gets what. There are some good procedures for doing this, and we’ll get to them in a moment. But first, let’s look at some of the bombs that may go off as we tiptoe our way through this minefield:

Greed: Unfortunately, death triggers the greed gene in some people. You may be surprised at who gets greedy amongst your own clan. It might even be you.

Denial: One of the stages of grief, denial during the disposition of the estate takes the form of someone not wanting to disturb the estate: not now or next week, or ever. (Afterwards, this person often wants to take home all the trash and everything else no one wants, in an effort to “save what’s left of the estate.”)

Control: One or more family members try to take control of the proceedings, even if they have no claim for doing so.

Laziness: As the scope of the job becomes apparent, some family members decide they’re not up for it, and leave. But they’ll expect checks for their share of the proceeds just the same. In a similar vein, it’s often a family member who can’t or won’t go through the estate (or research, sell and ship any of it) that thinks it’s all too valuable to just give away.

Regression: Seeing parents’ possessions often triggers childhood memories, and childhood rivalries as well. Adults who are only a few years apart suddenly start behaving like big sister and little sister, complete with bossiness and whining.

Impatience: One or more family members who are understandably eager to get back to their own lives decide to just pitch everything in order to save time. This doesn’t go over well with those who are more sentimental, or those who know there are items of monetary value in the estate.

Vendettas: Old sibling rivalries and disagreements flare up, resulting in those with vendettas taking anything the subjects of their ire might want, even if they don’t like it, just so the “undeserving” don’t get it.

(Only children, are you beginning to realize the plus side of your situation yet?)

If the family is a blended family, complications abound. And of course, the estate is often larger because it may include some or all of the first spouse’s belongings as well as the second spouse’s.

So, how do we traverse such a minefield? Some ground rules are in order:

  • No one removes anything from the estate without the other heirs’ consent. (It’s the executor’s job to enforce this rule.)
  • Choose a date for going through the estate that works for every single heir.
  • Stay calm if a fight breaks out.
  • Have a mediator present if you expect trouble. A trusted and loved extended family member is often the best choice, but if that’s not an option, you can always hire someone. (Find a mediator in your state at www.mediate.com.)
  • The presence of your parent’s attorney will be helpful if the estate is especially valuable, but expect him/her to charge the estate for the time this takes.
  • As mentioned earlier, restrict the meeting to heirs only. (Naturally, heirs should consider the desires of their own families when they’re choosing items. They can even send photos and texts to gauge interest in specific objects.)
  • Don’t allow sudden and immediate disposal of the estate. One relative may be content with keeping only their memories and urges everyone else to quickly pitch the estate, but doing so might leave others in shock and regret that they didn’t take the time to go through it. Everything must be done fairly, even though it will take more time.  Besides, someone in a rush could end up getting rid of something very valuable. Convince them to hire an appraiser, which will buy time for the group to go through things.

Next up: How to Divide an Estate Fairly Between Heirs

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