Q: I am the executor for my mother, who just passed away. She is our last parent to die, and now her house and garage will be unprotected. I don’t know who has keys to her house, since she had some caregivers towards the end of her life. Is it ok for me to change the locks?
A: If you are the executor of your mother’s estate, you have a responsibility to protect all she owned until decisions can be made about dividing and disposing of her personal property.
The first step would be to retrieve all the keys to your parents’ home. Since this is not possible with the uncertainty of who might have keys, start with a clean slate. Change the locks with everyone’s knowledge. What a small price to pay for peace of mind.
No one should remove anything from the house immediately after a parent’s death. This is common, yet it is a huge mistake that families make. No one issue causes as much disturbance among the children and heirs: knowing that one child took a collection of stuff away and the rest don’t know the real value, nor the extent of the collection.
On the other hand, the executor has the responsibility for safekeeping the assets, and a death will often signal a vacant house to a thief who might be watching the neighborhood. Depending on the valuables in your mother’s house, you may find the need to remove items of value, such as jewelry, sterling silver, personal legal papers, insurance documents, and anything else of significant value.
If you do remove any items for security reasons, document who has the items and where they are. Make sure that every heir knows where the items are, and that this is a temporary home for these items. Try to keep the items local, so they can be present and accounted for during the division of property.
The more timely the division of personal property with your siblings, the less worry you will have about burglary. Draw the curtains and blinds every time you leave the home, and have a lamp timer to come on in a couple of rooms in the house. Remember to leave the air-conditioning on. Nothing is worse than turning off the utilities and coming back to a house which smells of mildew and has visible mold.
© 2010 Julie Hall