My dear MIL, a longtime member of the women's organization AAUW (American Association of University Women), recently spent a great deal of time decluttering the estates of two members of AAUW who had passed away and left the bulk of their estates to the organization. Both women had amassed vast collections, and as both had lived through the Great Depression, that influenced their homes as well.
Here are MIL's tips and thoughts on this crucial issue:
"Hoarders and savers come in all intelligence abilities, income levels and academic achievement. My ldil (loving daughter-in-law) has asked me, as a member of a group that has inherited 2 houses from members who had no other heirs, what we had learned from the experience of preparing the homes for sale. In each case, we walked into a home that had been lovingly and clutteringly occupied by an elderly single woman who in her younger days had traveled, been active in the community, her profession, and left copious legacies both subjectively and objectively. Both college educated, one was a local university professor and the other a life-long Rosy-the Riveter employee at Boeing.
This advice should be useful for all family members (meaning adult children) as they attempt to organize their parents’ life-long collections and clutter.
1. Collections of magazines, such as Life or Look, usually have no value as libraries have copies in their archives. National Geographic and The New Yorker, for instance, are available on CD-ROM. Professional journals are usually available on-line these days. Newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals collect moisture, become mildewy and/or moldy and attract other unhealthy pathogens. A better decision is to routinely recycle magazines and catalogues (after removing identification) to the local laundromat, VA hospital, medical clinic, or library if you don’t want to put them in the recycle container immediately (as I don’t).
2. Collectibles being saved for later inheritance can be given away sooner to the intended recipient, along with the story behind the item. A digital story (using old photos of the item and the donor, with music) could also be made to accompany the item.
3. Identification of keys: all keys need to be fully identified as to what locks they open. Try to dispose of unused or unknown keys as you encounter them. Safe deposit keys need bank, branch, and box number identification. Finding a box of unlabeled keys motivates me (somewhat obsessive) to try them all, in all the locks.
4. AARP offers classes and systems for recording financial information if one has not been created. A trusted family member should be provided a list of credit cards, insurance policies, car registrations, etc.
5. Unidentifiable photographs stored in shoe boxes (or anywhere else) usually get thrown out.
6. Identification of garden plants, especially exceptional trees, bushes, and perennials, would be nice if the home is going to be placed on the market.
7. When the tools don’t work, discard them to an appropriate agency such as Goodwill if they can be repaired. Otherwise, scrap metal has some value, and handles could be used for plant stakes, firewood, or new handles.
8. Now that LP records are making a comeback, I would suggest (as my mother did) having the inheritors go through the collections and pick what they want now.
9. Circuit breakers and fuse boxes: Clear identification of house circuitry is good to know, especially when house inspection reveals that heat doesn’t work, and outside lights don’t work.
10. Water-turn-off: If possible, mark the water-turn off site in big letters, or make a sign identifying where turn-off is. (I learned this the hard way when pipes froze.)"
Remember, what you don't deal with now your heirs will have to cope with after you move on to the next level of existence (you know, Heaven, Hell, Nirvana, just plain dust). Take the time now, so that their memories can be of you, not your stuff.