Denial and a Parent’s Estate

George died after a good, long life, leaving behind two daughters and a houseful of belongings that he had always intended to sort through, but never did.

Alice, the elder daughter, lives over 900 miles away. Amy, the younger daughter, lives nearby with her husband and children. After the funeral, the sisters put their dad’s house on the market and vowed to get together again soon to go through the house and divide all of their dad’s possessions.

Alice’s children were grown and gone, and she had enough personal time accrued at work that she could easily take a couple of weeks off to drive back with a rental truck and collect her share of their dad’s things. But she couldn’t get Amy to commit to a time to tackle this challenge together. Amy’s family kept her very busy, and she was also having a hard time thinking about dividing the estate. She said she was really missing her dad, so Alice backed off for a few weeks.

The realtor reported that there were few people looking at the house, so it seemed like the sisters still had plenty of time to divide their dad’s belongings. Every few weeks, Alice would ask Amy if she was ready yet, and Amy would ask for more time.

When spring came, Alice began seeing open house signs in her neighborhood, and realized that people were looking at houses again. She began pushing Amy a little harder, but Amy never seemed to have any time to go through their dad’s house.

Then one day Amy called Alice in a panic.

“There’s an offer on the house! A good one. What are we gonna do?”

Alice sighed, and then collected her patience before responding.

“Amy, I was afraid this would happen. We should have gone through everything months ago. But we should still have a good 60 days before the house has to be empty.”

Amy began to cry.

“It’s a cash buyer. He wants the house in a month.”

Alice had enough experience with realtors to know that she and Amy would have to go through with the sale on whatever terms they could work out with the buyer. So they requested eight weeks until possession, but the buyer responded that his apartment lease was almost up so he had to have the house within a month.

The realtor urged them to accept the offer and the time frame, adding that houses of that size and vintage had not been selling very well, and that they were very lucky. So the sisters gave in: Alice arranged to take a few weeks off of work, and she arrived at the house with a rental truck barely a week later.

A look around the house made Alice’s mood plummet. How were they going to go through everything and have it all distributed in three weeks?

But that wasn’t the worst part. When Amy arrived, she burst into tears again, saying, “I’m not ready to do this! I can’t! Daddy just died, for God’s sake!”

Alice resisted the urge to go into big sister mode and start scolding. Instead, she put an arm around her younger sister.

“We’ve gotta do this, Ame. We have no choice.”

In the end, Amy took most of the furniture and almost none of the personal belongings, paperwork, books or antiques. Alice was left with the bulk of the work of going through everything that remained, because Amy was too upset to continue.

None of Amy or Alice’s children wanted any of the knick-knacks, antiques or dishes. After a week passed by, leaving the house looking worse than ever, Alice had Amy’s teenage kids come over to help her lug everything into the truck. Then she drove it back home, where she had no space for any of it. So she and her husband Ted rented a storage unit and filled it with the considerable remainder of her late father’s belongings.

And there it sits, because Alice doesn’t know what to do with it all. She put a few special items in her china cabinet, and keeps her dad’s favorite rocking chair, which Amy didn’t take, in her den. But lurking in the storage unit are boxes and boxes of china, glassware, antiques, framed art, and books that are a considerable weight on Alice’s mind. And they will soon become covered in mold and mildew, given the climate where Alice lives, unless she does something about it, soon.

What could these sisters have done to make the process easier? There’s no way to hurry the grieving process, so Amy’s reluctance to go through her father’s things had to be worked around. But there are other actions they could have taken:

  • Don’t put the house on the market immediately unless there’s a good reason (such as a reverse mortgage).
  • Set a time to begin going through the estate, and stick to it, instead of waiting to do so until you’re forced to, with a deadline looming.
  • Hire an estate agent to go through the items you know you don’t want to keep. They can either hold an estate sale in the house, or take your items to another sale they’re hosting; you’ll still get a percentage of the sales.
  • If you live some distance from your late parent’s home, try to make a trip back soon after the funeral (if not while you’re in town for the funeral) to go through personal paperwork and gauge the size of the estate that will need to be gone through, sooner rather than later.

No one wants to think about what will happen after their parents pass. But knowing what to do with their belongings will make things easier in the long run. Learn more tactics for handling your parents’ belongings in my book, How to Clean Out Your Parent’s House (Without Filling Up Your Own).