Assets and keepsakes aren’t all that adult children inherit when their parents pass away. Most also are left with a lifetime of stuff—file cabinets full of paperwork, closets full of clothing, stacks of framed photos, long-forgotten boxes in basements and attics and much, much more. Coping with all this stuff is a massive task, one that often must be done even as the family grieves a parent’s death.
If the heirs aren’t careful, valuable or meaningful items may be discarded or sold for pennies. Example: I once spotted an old steamer trunk in a Dumpster at an estate that I had been hired to appraise. The family was certain there was nothing of value in the trunk so they threw it away without waiting for me to arrive. There was little of value inside the trunk—but the trunk itself was made by Louis Vuitton and worth thousands of dollars.
Here’s how to clear out the clutter as painlessly as possible without overlooking hidden gems…
Start clearing the clutter while the parent is still alive, if possible. Not only will this reduce the size of the chore when the final cleanup occurs, it also gives the parent a chance to call attention to items that could have monetary or sentimental value.
You might face some resistance from your parent when you raise the topic of thinning out his/her stuff—if an item is still in the parent’s home, the parent probably believes it might be needed again someday. Consider initially offering to remove the things that are least likely to trigger resistance, such as your old childhood belongings…things in spots that the aging parent can no longer access, such as an attic…or clearly out-of-date and nonfunctioning items.
Tamp down any sibling suspicions. If you have siblings, talk to them about what you are doing and share with them what you find so that they do not become suspicious when things disappear from the parent’s home without explanation.
If you remove valuables for security reasons after the parent’s death, explain that you are doing so to keep them safe and will return everything when the estate is divided. Invite siblings to assist with these tasks, and provide them with an inventory, a receipt and/or digital photos.
Identify potential valuables hiding in plain sight. Heirs often have some sense of what their parents own of value—but relying solely on that sense can be costly. Adult children often are certain that Mom owned only costume jewelry when there actually are a few “real” pieces in her jewelry box…or they think that their parents don’t own valuable art or furniture when there’s actually a piece worth thousands of dollars. Example: An Oregon man discovered that the unloved painting hanging over his parents’ fireplace was worth more than $100,000—he had come very close to disposing of it.
Check “costume” jewelry for small hallmarks—impressions found on the back—that suggest the piece likely is made from a precious metal. Example: If “750” or “18k” is stamped on a piece of jewelry, it suggests the piece might be 18-karat gold…“585” or “14k” suggests 14-karat gold…and “STER” or “925” suggests sterling silver. Check the backs of paintings for labels suggesting an artwork was once sold by a gallery—some oil paintings can have significant value.
These are not foolproof ways to identify value—the best option is to pay an experienced appraiser a few hundred dollars to examine parents’ possessions. Choose an appraiser who is accredited by at least one of the sector’s well-established professional organizations—the American Society of Appraisers (ASA)…the Appraisers Association of America (AAA)…the Certified Appraisers Guild of America (CAGA)…and/or the International Society of Appraisers (ISA)—and who has experience with the specific category of valuables in question. These organizations require ongoing training and hold their members to ethical standards.
Valuables sometimes overlooked by heirs also include…
Clothing and furniture from the 1930s through the 1960s. It never occurs to most heirs that their parents’ old clothes or old-but-not-antique furniture might have value, but styles from these decades are in demand.
Virtually anything made by a famous luxury brand. If an item bears the name Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Rolex or any high-end designer brand, it’s worth having it looked at by an appraiser, even if the item is dated or broken. Sometimes even empty boxes from these companies have value.
Where and How to Sell It
How should you sell items that you and your fellow heirs don’t want from a parent’s estate? There are a number of options, and which is best depends in part on what you’re selling.
Estate-sale companies stage yard-sale–like events, typically for 35% to 40% of the sale’s revenues. You can find local estate-sale companies through the website of my organization, the American Society of Estate Liquidators. This is a good way to sell most household items from the typical estate, but certain items may be easier to sell or will get a better price if you sell them elsewhere such as on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist.
An auction house sometimes can get more than an estate sale for high-end pieces of jewelry, art, antiques and collectibles worth thousands of dollars apiece. However, auction houses also charge commissions, which can vary widely. Auction houses decline many more pieces than they accept, but there’s no harm in asking. Get a free auction evaluation through Heritage Auctions’ website and/or contact auction houses in your area.
eBay may bring more than an estate sale for small, easily shipped valuables that do not interest auction houses. But you or one of your fellow heirs will have to take the time to list each item on the site and manage the sale and shipping process.
Facebook Marketplace or Craigs- list could be the best place to sell oversized items that have value, such as pool tables, pianos and larger-than-normal aquariums. These types of items often fail to sell at all in estate sales because most estate-sale shoppers lack the vehicles and manpower needed to transport them. But you will have to meet potential buyers at your parent’s house or arrange for someone you trust to do so.
Inevitably, many household items or knickknacks from the estate won’t sell. Options for these include…
A local nonprofit resale shop might pick up unsold potentially useful items. But many resale shops currently are overstocked and have become picky about what they’ll pick up. If The Salvation Army and Goodwill say no, try lesser known shops such as those run by local hospices, religious organizations and veterans’ organizations. Or you could list items to give away on sites such as Nextdoor.com, OfferUp.com, Facebook Marketplace or local Facebook community groups in your town.
Whatever remains could be thrown away. Enlist support to remove this clutter—getting it all out of the house is not a one-person job. If family members aren’t available to help, ask religious and fraternal organizations that you or your parent belonged to if they can supply volunteers. Local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops sometimes are willing to help, too. Contact the local municipal waste-removal service, and ask whether you have to make special arrangements to have a large number of garbage bags picked up. Depending on local rules and the amount of clutter, you might have to pay a private trash-hauling company or arrange for a Dumpster.
If your parent’s home contains dozens of boxes of paperwork, call a shredding company, which can dispose of potentially sensitive documents quickly on site, typically for around $100. Save documents that still might be needed, such as all estate-related documents…tax and financial documents from the past seven years…and receipts and bills from the past three years.