If a family member or other loved one has passed on, and you’ve been charged with what generally can be called deceased estate clean out, there are a number of issues that you need to understand when it comes to the process of dealing with the property of a deceased individual. These include legal, practical, and strategic considerations when it comes to the overall process of deceased estate clean out. This guide is presented to assist you in that process.
Overview of Estate Law
As a prelude to deceased estate cleanup, you need to have a clear understanding of probate law. You need to make certain that you clean out estate property and get rid of it in a manner the complies with state law.
Each state has its own probate code, laws the governing what happens to the property of a person after he or she dies. Although each state has its own probate code, the laws governing estates after death are quite similar from coast to coast in the United States. Indeed, many states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code, or a variation of that law.
If a person has a last will and testament at the time of death, that instrument governs the manner in which the assets of the estate are dealt with and distributed. A will also nominates what legally is known as an executor. An executor is the person vested with the legal authority and responsibility to oversee the affairs of an estate.
If a person passes on without a last will and testament, the probate court appoints what is known as an administrator or personal representative. Like an executor, an administrator or personal representative is charged with overseeing the affairs of the estate.
Legal Authority to Deal with the Assets of the Estate
Because a primary element of deceased estate clean out is dealing with the personal property of the individual who has died, you must have the legal authority to address such an issue. The ultimate legal authority to deal with the assets of a person who has died comes in the form of a Letters of Executor or Letters of Administration, depending on whether or not the individual had a valid will at the time of death.
You need to bear in mind that if you distribute or dispose of personal property of a deceased individual without proper authority, you can be held responsible for violating the probate code or laws of the state. This can expose you to civil penalties, including a court order directing you to pay for property that was distributed by you without appropriate legal authority.
An overview of estate law was presented a moment ago. In addition, if you have questions about the legal authority needed to appropriately undertake deceased estate clean out, you should consult with an experienced probate attorney. As a matter of general practice, an estate and probate lawyer will schedule an initial consultation with a prospective client at no cost. During such an appointment, you will be provided with a general overview about what you need to do (or don’t need to do, as the case may be) in order to begin the process of deceased estate clean out.
Collect and Secure Important Documents
Before you do anything in regard to deceased estate clean out, you need to identify, collect, and secure important documents. This is a task that needs to be done before anything else to ensure that they don’t get lost or disposed of inadvertently in the process of dealing with property. Examples of the types of documents that you need to identify, collect, and secure include:
- Last will and testament
- Life insurance policies
- Titles to real estate
- Deeds to cars
- Social security card
- Driver’s license or state ID card
- Military ID card
- Health insurance policy
Some of these documents will require prompt action. For example, depending on the laws of the estate in which the death occurred, or the deceased person resided, the last will and testament will need to be filed with the probate court. A claim will need to be filed with any life insurance company. Bills associated with the deceased person’s last illness will need to be filed with the health insurance company.
In some instances, a deceased person shares with at least one person where important documents are kept. However, this is not always the case. Depending on how the deceased person dealt with confidentiality, you may need to do a good amount of investigation to find all crucial documents.
The first place to look for important legal documents is a safe deposit box, of the deceased individual had one. You wall also want to determine if there is a home safe. Other places in which the search for important documents should occur include under the deceased person’s bed or between mattresses. You need to be as creative as possible when it comes to investigation locations at which crucial legal documents might be maintained.
Eliminate What is Clearly Rubbish
In any residence upon a person’s death, there will be items in the premises that clearly is trash, garbage, or rubbish. The one thing that you can do directly after a person dies is eliminate anything that clearly has no real value. This also includes disposing of perishable items, like food and beverages.
The process of undertaking a preliminary elimination of garbage also provides you an opportunity to assess the overall situation in regard to personal property owned by the deceased person. While you’re not in a position at this juncture to begin sorting and distributing or disposing of personal property at this point in time, you can use the gathering and throwing out of rubbish from around the property as an opportunity to begin making notes about personal property that ultimate will need to be dealt with as part of the broader deceased estate clean out.
The process of eliminating rubbish also sheds light on what you might need in the way of a dumpster. Because the process of deceased estate clean out can involve the disposal of a good amount of trash and other items, renting a dumpster oftentimes is a wise course of action to take.
Depending on the state of the residence, as you consider the removal of trash from the premises, you might need to considering hiring a professional to deal with deceased estate clean out. For example, in some cases, family or friends of a deceased person learn that the individual who has passed has been hoarding. Cleaning up the aftermath of hoarding can necessitate professional assistance. Indeed, even in the absence of hoarding, there can be a tremendous amount of items, some which may be rubbish and some that may be personal property that needs to be appropriately dealt with, requiring the assistance of a deceased estate clean out professional.
Prepare a Written Inventory of Personal Property
Another preliminary step you need to take before diving into deceased estate clean out is to prepare a thorough written inventory of the personal property left by the deceased individual. Depending on what type of probate process is initiated in regard to the estate itself, the court may require such an inventory. In that situation, the inventory is submitted to the court as a part of the official probate process.
You need to be thorough with the property inventory. But, that does not mean that you need to itemize every single item of property owned by the deceased person. You can include broad classifications of property for items that are of less value. When it comes to items that are more valuable, these pieces of property need to be specifically set forth in an inventory.
In order to cover your bases, you may want to have someone else assist you in making the inventory of property. You don’t want to face an accusation at some juncture in time that you misused the deceased estate clean out process to misappropriate items of the dead individual’s property for your own use. By having someone else assist with the estate inventory process, you have at least another person who can testify as to what did and did not happen with property during the inventory process.
Hire Professional Appraiser
Oftentimes, a professional appraiser is necessary to get the true valuation of the property of an estate. There are a number of reasons why getting a solid valuation of property is necessary. Getting property values from a professional appraiser can be needed for tax purposes. This can include both estate and inheritance taxes, depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding an estate.
Obtaining professional valuations of estate property can be necessary when items are going to be auctioned off or otherwise sold. Finally, if a formal probate process is required by law because of the circumstances surrounding an estate, the probate court and law may require a formal appraisal of certain types of property.
Separate and Secure Personal Mementoes
The next step in deceased estate clean out is separating and securing personal mementoes of the person who has passed on. These are items that include such things as photographs and similar types of items that might not have any real value but have a tremendous amount of sentimental value.
As an aside, because personal mementoes can have a considerable amount of sentimental value, these items should also be subject to an inventory, in the same way other items of personal property are accounted.
Keep in mind that a last will and testament may set forth how items of sentimental value are to be distributed. If the will doesn’t delineate what should happen in regard to sentimental items, family members should be involved directly in the process of determining how these items are to be distributed.
Sort Personal Property
After you’ve made it through these preliminary steps associated with deceased estate cleanup, you are ready to dive in to the real work. The heart of the deceased estate clean out is identifying and sorting out the personal property of the deceased. The personal property of the estate typically can be placed in one of four categories. These categories are based on what will happen to the personal property after it has been sorted out via the deceased estate clean out process. These categories are:
- Property to heirs
- Property to donate
- Property to sell
- Property to dispose
Property to Heirs
If a last will and testament exists, that governs the manner in which assets are distributed. If not, state law comes into play and dictates the manner in which property is distributed among heirs. When it comes to deceased estate clean out, dealing with the distribution of property to heirs can prove to be a dicey part of the overall endeavor.
A key to making deceased estate clean out as smooth of a process as possible is to bring the heirs on board and into the process. If they have a sense of ownership in the overall clean out and property distribution process, the possibility for disputes and problems about “who gets one” is significantly diminished.
You need to cover your bases in all aspects of deceased estate clean out, particularly when it comes to assets given to heirs. A key element of this is having everyone sign a release and acknowledgment form when they receive property.
Property to Donate
In nearly every estate clean out situation, there is likely to be property that the heirs do not want, that isn’t quite right for sale, but that you definitely want to avoid throwing away. As a consequence, there will be items culled from the personal property of an estate that are suitable for donation.
Keep in mind that you do not have to haul donated items from place to place as part of the donation process. There are organizations and agencies that accept donations, including large items like furniture, that pickup at times convenient for you.
Property to Sell
After heirs have received items of property they desire, a key phase of deceased estate clean out is identifying property that will be sold. There are two primary ways in which estate property is sold: estate auction or estate sale.
If you are going to have an auction to sell estate assets, you definitely need to select a professional that has experience in dealing with probate-related sales. These professionals have the background and resources as well as understand the legal parameters associated with estate auctions.
As noted, the other course to take is a more basic estate sale, which can take the form of something akin to a garage sale. There is no auctioneer. With that said, depending on the volume and type of property involved, there are also professionals available that can assist you in marketing, staging, and executing an estate sale.
Property to Dispose
Another category into which property and other items need to be placed is disposables. These are items that are not wanted by heirs, not suitable for donation anywhere, not suitable for sale. As is mentioned throughout this guide, you not only need to be prepared to make decisions about what will be thrown out, but you need to make sure you have the resources available to streamline the disposal process. Chief among these resources is having a rented dumpster at the premises of an appropriate size and for a suitable duration.
Hire a Professional for All Aspects of Deceased Estate Clean out
As you can tell by reviewing this deceased estate clean out guide, the overall process can be complex, challenging, and time consuming. Therefore, you may want to give serious consideration to hiring a professional deceased estate clean out specialist. If that is the course you elect to take, there are some facts, factors, and pointers you need to bear in mind when it comes to engaging the services of this type of specialist.
- Experience: Experience is fundamental when it comes to engaging the services of a deceased estate clean out specialist. Dealing with the personal property and cleaning out everything associated with a deceased person’s home is not a set of tasks that can be left to a novice.
- Price quote: A reputable estate clean out service provides a firm price quote upfront and before works begins. Guaranteed pricing is provided by reputable service providers so that there is never any question about what is being paid for this type of assistance.
- Coordinate rubbish removal: As discussed, a major part of deceased estate clean out is removing garbage and trash. As was also mentioned, oftentimes the best course is to rent a dumpster and have it placed at the deceased person’s home during the course of the deceased estate clean out process.
- Insured and bonded: Accidents and injuries do happen. Therefore, if you elect to engage a professional service to undertake estate cleanup, you must make certain that a specialist is properly insured and bonded. Ask a specialist to provide you with documentation of insurance and bonding before you contract with them to undertake estate cleanup.
Deceased Estate Clean out and Real Estate Sale
An ultimate goal of a deceased estate clean out is not only to address cleaning up the home of a person who has died and properly dealing with that individual’s personal property but to get the residence in a proper condition for sale or transfer to an heir. Thus, the broad view of an estate clean out process is to ensure that a residence is in a salable condition.
You do need to keep in mind that an element of the comprehensive clean out process may include making certain repairs to the residence. This particularly is the case if the deceased owner has not spent a great deal of time, effort, or money in up keeping let alone updating a residence.
Once the clean out process itself is over, and the house is headed towards a sale, keep in mind that there are professional real estate staging professionals that can assist in making a truly marketable presentation of the property. Engaging a professional to stage a residence, in what fairly can be said to be the final stage of deceased estate clean out and sales preparation, ensures an enhanced property value whether the home is sold on the open market or auctioned off.
A deceased estate clean out project need not be overwhelming. With proper organization, and by accessing suitable resources and the assistance of experienced, reputable professionals, a deceased estate clean out can prove to be a manageable endeavor. The guide points presented here are designed to provide a pathway to an efficient, proper process.