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Serving as the executor of your parents’ estate can be a demanding challenge thanks to the legal, political, technical and emotional responsibilities it involves.   For many grown children, the process of cleaning out and dispersing the contents of their parents’ homes is one of the hardest aspects of this new and sometimes unwelcome role.  But it’s also one of the most important.

Having a roadmap to guide your first steps can help you get started.  The following checklist is adapted from How to Clean Out Your Parents’ Estate in 30 Days or Less by Julie Hall, The Estate Lady.

LOCKS AND KEYS.  Change all residential and other property locks.  New master keys should be in the possession of the executor and/or estate attorney only. Notify heirs and family members that locks have been changed for security reasons.

PAPERWORK.  Oversee collection of all essential papers such as the will, insurance policies, bank records, contact information for key advisors, and any instructions or guides to the disposition of property such as appraisals or household inventories.

SAFEGUARD VALUABLES.  One person only — the executor — should remove and secure any portable valuables including jewelry, silverware, guns, coins, stamp collections, paintings or original artwork. If you have already spoken with an estate appraiser, involve him or her at this stage (if not, see below). Make a detailed list to be kept in executor’s and/or attorney’s files.  Notify heirs and family members that removal of valuables is temporary only until estate is settled.  

GATHER YOUR ADVISORY TEAM. Many checklists put this last but I think it belongs near the beginning.  As soon as is practical, assemble the professionals pertinent to the estate’s dissolution.  You don’t have to engage in long consultations with them yet, but it’s a good idea to identify who they are and have at least a preliminary conversation to help identify any important issues early in the process.  Your advisory team may include: estate attorney, insurance agent, accountant, financial advisor, appraiser, auctioneer or estate liquidator, realtor, cleaning service and hauler.  And please don’t forget your parents’ favorite charity: you have the power to do more good than you may ever know.

HIRE AN APPRAISER. Have a qualified appraiser with experience in personal property valuation assess all valuables (including those already removed from the home for safekeeping).  If the interested parties agree that a formal appraisal is unnecessary, at least have an appraiser perform a walk-through.  This ensures that valuable items don’t end up on the dust heap by accident.

IDENTIFY BEQUESTS AND LIST ITEMS OF SENTIMENTAL VALUE.  Make a copy of these lists and distribute them to heirs for review.  Have heirs annotate the list or prepare their own identifying items they would like to have or keep.  Remember: you’re only listing items of personal interest or financial value.  Most of the contents will probably be destined for donation, auction, estate sale or the trash bin. 

Note: Be aware that identifying vaguely described bequests, polling family members about items they want, and creating a household inventory can become a full-time (and thankless) job.  Some appraisers who specialize in estates may be able to coordinate this process for a fee.  If you work, or have young children at home, live out of the area, or anticipate friction between family members, by all means consider availing yourself of this service.  It’s worth every penny.

DIVIDE KEY PROPERTY.  Distribute uncontested contents and bequests among heirs (preferably with appraised values).  In case of any item desired by more than one heir: determine its value then distribute along some principle of equity.  For example, select a name from a hat, then give others a chance to choose something of equivalent value. If no amicable solution can be found, consider designating the item for sale with proceeds to be divided.

NOTIFY HEIRS OF  REMAINING DISPERSAL PROCESS.  Let them know how the rest of the estate will be managed and dispersed once determined.  This may include donation, consignment, additional gifts to family and friends, auction, etc.  Let them know how proceeds from future sales will be handled.

SET A DATE TO EMPTY THE HOUSE.  Defining a timetable will help you wrap things up in a timely way.  Let this final phase be a celebration of your parents’ life and a source of closure for you, not a chore to be dreaded.