A senior’s perspective on the estate planning process When I saw my doctor for a…
What’s the greatest gift you can leave your family?
You may think – an inheritance, of course. But what kind of inheritance?
Sure, money’s welcome. But a lifetime’s belongings in an overflowing garage? Not so much.
Yet often, relatives who planned the funeral face another herculean task afterward: sorting through jumbled piles of belongings.
Furniture, old papers, boxes of photos, 100 piece china sets, you name it – the next generation is often dragged unwillingly into a scavenger hunt. Some items may be useful to them. Others may hold sentimental value. But many items are just trash. And if no one sorted through a grandparent’s belongings before storing them earlier? Now there are two generations of stuff in the garage!
Often, one relative is more attached to the belongings than others, or multiple relatives want the same item. Both of these situations can cause conflict, and even litigation.
That’s why some say the greatest gift older people can leave their family is preventing this debacle – by sorting through their own belongings.
Sort and Organize Your Belongings
Ideally, you sort your own belongings in three steps:
- Dispose of or donate what you don’t need
- Create an inventory or list of items you kept (with notes like location)
- Share the inventory with your family
Also consider obtaining appraisals of any high value items for the inventory, such as original artwork and expensive jewelry.
For old photos, note down names and approximate dates on the backs and/or digitize them. You can then organize them chronologically and/or by maternal vs. paternal side, or even create digital albums. Tell family members their location, and consider uploading them to secure online storage and giving family members access.
Call in The Pros
Maybe you’re thinking – great idea, but I have no time to sift through dusty Polaroids! Or maybe the thought of even entering the garage fills you with dread. If it’s financially feasible, consider calling in the pros, such as photo and professional organizers.
Photo organizer Philip Griffith, co-owner of PSG Photo Solutions, is passionate about their mission. They help families turn a jumble of photos which the next generation doesn’t want into a curated photo estate that tells the family stories of lessons learned and values passed down – in a way that everyone can easily view and access.
In one case, they set up a secure family photo website after scanning the client’s heritage photos. The client could then privately share them and collaborate on family history.
A good professional organizer creates order out of chaos. They can sort, discard, and donate belongings; divide, pack, and ship them; select and coordinate vendors (brokers, movers, storage facilities, appraisers/auctioneers); categorize financial and personal documents; and prepare for open houses. In addition, some companies like Seriatim, Inc. will prepare household inventories assigning values to digitally photographed belongings.
A member of Seriatim team’s, Carolyn Dow, told me about a case with an elderly family member who was moving to assisted living: “We were hired to organize and sort the belongings. There were standard aspects to the job, including appraising art and other items of value. We also organized his wife’s belongings that would go to her children – not his. It was important to document them and keep them separate. The gentleman did not move into assisted living after all, but we still did our work carefully without disturbing him or his caregivers.”
I realized why Ms. Dow’s story sounded so familiar. I’d learned that professional organizers must recognize that all households are unique, evaluate each family member’s needs with sensitivity, and flexibly adjust their approach if circumstances change. These are the very same skills I apply to estate planning.
Better Late Than Never
But back to the overflowing garage (yikes!). What if your loved one did not organize anything, and as the executor or trustee, it’s now your mess?
Professional organizers can assist executors and trustees too, if the estate or trust can cover their fees. And while paying a professional organizer may seem like a luxury, it may be more economical in the long run. Families sometimes put all of a loved one’s belongings in storage and set the bill to auto pay – then forget about them for years. Some people even keep paying maintenance on apartments for decades to avoid dealing with a loved one’s belongings. Costs saved is money in beneficiaries’ pockets. Professional organizers sometimes even discover a bank statement or insurance policy no one knew about, buried in a pile of documents.
Note that while an estate is undergoing probate, there are restrictions on disposing of or distributing property and taking it out of state. Consult a qualified New York probate attorney for guidance.
Photo organizers can help after a loved one’s passing, too. Mr. Griffith told me about a case where the mother left 12,000 photos to her trust. “She left instructions in her trust to scan all the family photo albums, front and back. She had written on almost every photo the who, what, why, when, and where. After our work, all four adult children had digital copies of all photos, and the originals were safe in archival storage boxes. They’re accessible by the album they came from, and it’s easy to find photos because the file structure of the digital version matches the physical.”
Remember that if you direct a legacy project like this, you should fund your trust sufficiently to cover the cost. See Advanced Estate Planning for more information on trusts.
Feeling inspired? Set your goal for home or photo organizing today, with clearly defined tasks and a realistic timeline. Or call in the pros!
Carolyn Dow conducts Business Development for Seriatim, Inc. For more details on their services, see Seriatim | Professional Organizers | Inventory Management | NYC.
Philip C. Griffith II is the co-owner of PSG Photo Solutions. For more details on their services, see PSG Photo Solutions – Personal Photo Organizer Ohio.