Things We Find Left Behind

Treasure is in the eye of the beholder.  What one person holds dear, another wants nothing to do with.  This is true between elderly parents and their middle-aged children, and even grandchildren.  The Depression Era generation doesn’t let go of much.  They take great pride in their possessions, especially the ladies with their ornate silver plate pieces, painted china, and etched crystal that they cherished in another time and place.

We find a ton of handwritten notes intended for those left behind.  We find them tucked inside vases, taped to the back of china or paintings, taped under sculptures and figurines.  We find loose notes in desk drawers.  Sometimes, we even find the notes laying right where the author left them before being struck with infirmity or death.

These notes are meant to guide the loved ones after their death and they often include a myriad of information: the history behind the item, the name of the person they are leaving it to, and my personal favorite … what they think it is worth.  Many of these notes have yellowed with age and some are barely decipherable.  To complicate the matter, this particular generation has a tendency to change their minds frequently, often creating multiple notes with mixed messages (probably depending on who ticked them off most recently – according to the children who read the notes).  It is also possible they may forget and start all over.

Here is an example of one I just found:

Dated 1977

“In my antique chest, with the items I intend to give to Susan and Ralph.  Top shelf – “Boy and two goats” Royal Copenhagen figurine and female Hummel. – $2,000 value

Second shelf – Royal Doulton Toby mugs and Hummel plates – $1,800 value

Third shelf – Carlsbad, Austria dish and crystal duck and cat – $300 value

To Robert and Sylvia – In the hutch – the smaller Hummel figurines, Venetian glass fish, crystal candle holder and small Royal Doulton figurine. – $1,500 value”

The list is quite extensive and goes on for a long time.  Here’s what we need to know from this story:

  1. These items were never distributed.
  2. They were never distributed because no one wanted them.
  3. They ended up in my hands to sell for the family and they will split the proceeds.

Do notes help?  I think sometimes they do, especially when they offer personal history and IF you want to keep these items.  Notes can also be removed or taken by unscrupulous heirs-to-be, and often we find more than one version of their notes, which claim different people can have the same item.

How do you handle that one?  You write a formal addendum or document to place with your Will or Trust, and make sure there is only one copy, not multiples.  Ask your attorney how to do this.  Better yet, consider giving it away or selling these items, if the children don’t want them, before any of this takes place.

From my experience, many times the intentions of these notes are never carried out.

You can have the best intentions but if they are not carried through, it’s a moot point.

If you want someone to have somethings special of yours, give it to them while you are still able to do so.

Somewhere along the line, we have to break the habit of waiting until someone is “gone” to deal with all of this.  Granted some people prefer it that way, but more and more, we are seeing a trend of people giving away or selling their items before they pass, to make it easier on their loved ones left behind.

Personally, I think the best notes we can leave behind are thoughts of joy and love, and not necessarily who gets what and how much items are worth.  My favorite “possession” from my late mother is a letter she sent me stating how proud she is of me and how I have chosen to serve people, and may God bless me abundantly for doing so.  It is a deeply personal note and one that I will always cherish.  I would gladly let go of the material stuff I inherited from her, for this one note and memories of happy times.  That’s the REAL inheritance!

©2014 The Estate Lady®

Julie Hall, The Estate Lady®, is the foremost national expert on personal property in estates, including liquidating, advising, and appraising.  She is also the Director of American Society of Estate Liquidators®, the national educational and resource organization for estate liquidation.

No part of The Estate Lady® blogs, whole or partial, may be used without Julie Hall’s written consent.  Email her at

Ashes to Ashes

It was one of those estates where you could cut the tension with a knife.  It wasn’t necessarily the fault of the last remaining parent who had just died.  It was her son, who was (to put it mildly) a massive pain in the butt.  He was spoiled, discourteous, disrespectful, and just not what you would consider a good person.  Those who know me would tell you I am an exceptional judge of character, whether it be from an intuition I seem to have inherited from mom, or just decades of observing and working with the good and bad side of human nature.  So, how bad could this son really be?

Well, let’s just say he demanded that I sell mom’s very personal items that we would normally dispose of, or wash and donate.  He dug into our donation boxes that had already been taped shut.  “I want every cent I can get out of this estate, so I want you to sell everything including her underwear.  Then I want you to low-ball the values so I don’t have to pay too much in taxes.”  Can you believe this?  Unfortunately, he was serious.

He was a man of significant financial means and was getting ready to inherit much more.  If selling mom’s undergarments wasn’t strange enough (which I refused to do because I believe in preserving the dignity of those no longer with us), we found cremated remains of his father, who had died two decades before, in a foyer cabinet.  As always, I handle remains with much care when we find them.

After consulting with the attorney handling the estate, it was determined that this son should take care of the remains.  When I handed the box of cremated remains to the son, he literally assumed a bowler’s position and threw the box, from several feet away, under the kitchen sink with the Windex and Comet.  Oh my gosh!  If I had not been there to see it, I never would have believed it.

I managed to get the son out of the estate and rescued the remains from the household chemicals.  After reporting this to the lawyer, we decided I should deliver “Mr. Smith’s” remains to the lawyer, who would try to find another family member to scatter the ashes as Mr. Smith wished.  It was the right thing to do.

I vaguely remember telling the law firm that if they could not find a family member, please let me know and I will scatter Mr. Smith.  I felt horrible that this man’s wishes were never fulfilled and that his remains were treated with such disrespect.  Years later, I received a call from the law firm asking me if the offer was still on the table to scatter Mr. Smith.  No family member would come and get him.  Struck speechless and trying to recall this estate from my long-ago memory, I simply replied that I would be happy to honor the last wishes of this man who clearly had no one who would do it for him.

The spoiled, uncaring family, who wasn’t willing to tend to his remains but more than willing to take his money, was a no-show, despite the best efforts of the law firm to come and get Mr. Smith.  It was then legally arranged for me to do this.  I saw to it that Mr. Smith got his final wish, praying over his ashes as a stranger, but one who clearly cared more for him than his own family.  I would want some kind soul to do the same for me.

For decades, his remains floated and were thrown around.  It was time they were released, and they were.  In a gorgeous area and on a perfect day, this stranger lifted a prayer for him, but silently cursed his son under my breath.  I know I should have been a better person than that, but seriously, how low can one go?

Sorry to quote Forrest Gump, but “Sometimes there just aren’t enough words.”

©2013 The Estate Lady®

Julie Hall, The Estate Lady®, is the foremost national expert on personal property in estates, including liquidating, advising, and appraising.  She is also the Director of American Society of Estate Liquidators®, the national educational and resource organization for estate liquidation.

No part of The Estate Lady® blogs, whole or partial, may be used without Julie Hall’s written consent.  Email her at

“Dear Dad” (part 2)

Part 2

Here are the words a daughter used to encourage her father to face fears of dementia.  You can also watch as Julie reads her letter for her father:

Dear Dad,

I love you and mom more than you could ever know.  We don’t say it every day, but it is always there, always in our hearts.  I was just thinking how odd it must be for you to be seeing multiple doctors, because you never did care for them much, but as you say, “the body is starting to wear out.” 

I recall a conversation you and I had recently at your dining room table one morning.  You told me “not to get old.”  Well dad, I really want to get old; may God bless me with a long and fruitful life.  I have so much to do, so much to learn, and so much to give back.  Mostly, I have much to live for — a beautiful family, where I would love to see my daughter grow and flourish, and see her children find their way into this world.  I want to grow old by my husband’s side — wrinkles, aches, and all.  I can see myself as a frumpy old lady in my garden, talking to the birds and an old cat.

In a world where money and material possessions are priorities, I learned at a young age that those things are great to have, but do not bring happiness or guarantee anything good.  It’s all about the relationships we build and sustain that are important.  I believe that when we leave this place, we take only what we have accrued during our lifetime: important lessons, love for family and friends, good times.

Dad, you confided in me that your memory is not what it used to be and that it has you worried.  It is very important to share this with Dr. Jones so he can give you the appropriate tests to rule out certain causes.  I am a little concerned about your memory, because you are concerned.  There are many reasons why memory can become foggy, and many of the reasons are fixable. 

Mom said you cancelled your doctor appointment, but how can you nip this in the bud if you keep cancelling appointments?  If the shoe were on the other foot, and it was me, mom, or brother, wouldn’t you encourage us to get to the bottom of it?  Of course you would.  You would say you cannot run from this sort of thing and to hit it straight on, and you would be right.  We come from a long line of strong, tenacious people.  Empower yourself, dad, and get the facts so you don’t have to worry.

Please also consider that you have a wife and two children who adore you and want you around for a very long time.  While we have no control over how much time we have in this life, we do have control over the decisions we make, and this would be a good one … to see the doctor and get tests done so they can help you with your memory.  Making good decisions is something you always taught us.  Did you think I wasn’t listening all these years?  I have been.

If I have upset you, that certainly was not my intent.  My words came from a place and concern and love for both you and for mom.  Think about this before you cancel any more appointments.  You have always practiced and preached the very principles of Dale Carnegie, and we learned that from you.  I’ll be the first to admit I am not crazy about doctors, but you might be able to head off some memory issues if you find out what is causing them.

As a child growing up, you would always say to me, “Just give it some thought, Julie, and you will come to the right conclusion.”  You probably thought I never listened, but if that were the case, how did I end up this smart? <grin>  Give it some thought, Dad.  Do it for you, for Mom, for us.  Do it because you deserve to know.  If it’s nothing, then it would have been worry for no reason.  If it is something then we will face it all together.  That’s what family is for.

Per la famiglia (To family)!  Ti amo (I love you)!


©2013 The Estate Lady®

Julie Hall, The Estate Lady®, is the foremost national expert on personal property in estates, including liquidating, advising, and appraising.  She is also the Director of American Society of Estate Liquidators®, the national educational and resource organization for estate liquidation.

No part of The Estate Lady® blogs, whole or partial, may be used without Julie Hall’s written consent.  Email her at

“Dear Dad”

Part 1

There comes a time in everyone’s lives where you either face the demon or you don’t.  Not one to shy away from much, including a nasty demon who was helping himself to my father, something simply had to be done.

I knew long before anyone else in the family that dad was exhibiting signs of dementia.  When I brought it up to my mom and sibling back in 2006, they thought I was nuts … only, I wasn’t.  It was the one time I wished I was wrong.  It wasn’t long before dad knew something was wrong too.  One day he confided in me that he was worried because his once sharp memory was “fading fast and he couldn’t remember things anymore.”

I encouraged dad to see his family doctor for testing, but he never did or he cancelled appointments.  Mom didn’t push the issue, despite my sweet badgering, because as I was to learn later on, she was afraid.  So afraid to uncover the truth that it seemed to paralyze her, and she was a strong woman.

The letter I will share with you is a very personal demonstration of love between my father and myself, and how I saw things as they were rudely unfolding and trying to blacken our world.  Not knowing what to do, or even how to begin doing it, I looked deep inside to find the right kind of solution because I felt damn helpless.  All my life I could solve any problem, help anyone, come up with solutions.  But I couldn’t beat this … not with all the tenacity in the world!

Of everything that I had heard about dementia, how could anything ever be right again?  It was that quiet inner voice that won my attention and I tried to reach my father through the love I had for him.  “Love conquers all,” they say, and if that is true, my words would touch my father’s soul.  That is exactly what I intended.  If I couldn’t help him fight and win, the least I could do was offer love and hold him up.

I just found this special letter in a box among my mother’s “keepsakes” from her estate; she kept it for a reason.  If you know anyone who can benefit from it, please pass it along, because it worked.  It reached both mom and dad and we all faced this demon together.  Being the front guy facing this enemy is the single, most frightening experience of my life.  There was no sword big enough, nor shield large enough to protect from its talons.  But there is always love …

Part 2 … coming next week

©2013 The Estate Lady®

Julie Hall, The Estate Lady®, is the foremost national expert on personal property in estates, including liquidating, advising, and appraising.  She is also the Director of American Society of Estate Liquidators®, the national educational and resource organization for estate liquidation.

No part of The Estate Lady® blogs, whole or partial, may be used without Julie Hall’s written consent.  Email her at

When a Change in Health Prompts a Change in Your Will

An estimated 50% of us have a will or trust!  This is not good news!

Most people have not yet comprehended (or accepted) that dying without a will is a very costly mistake that will negatively impact all you leave behind.  It’s not just about the hassles and frustrations your heirs will go through potentially for years, but the expenses involved.  Ultimately, the state you live in will make decisions regarding your estate that will not distribute it the way you would have chosen.  In a nutshell, get it done now and leave a legacy of respect, instead of resentment.

For those who do have a will, it is important to consider any changes in mental and physical health, as these could greatly impact the outcome of someone’s wishes.  For example, let’s say mom’s healthcare power of attorney states that dad makes all decisions for mom in the event she is incapacitated, vegetative state, etc.  Suddenly dad is exhibiting odd behavior and is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which is progressing rapidly.  Can he now make sound decisions for mom?  Or, mom may not think about these details and this is the time for the children to talk with her about it.

So many Boomer children don’t know how to talk with their parents about these delicate issues, so permit me to offer some very sound advice.  It has to be done; it has to be discussed, as painful as it is.  If left “under the carpet,” no answers will be available to you should they become infirm or die.  Get the answers now, and do so with love and compassion.

Here’s one example: “Mom, we were thinking about yours and dad’s situation.  Now that dad is showing a decline in health, new decisions have to be made and documented so your wishes are fulfilled the way you would like them to be.  Dad is no longer capable of understanding complex issues, and you will need to choose a new healthcare power of attorney, so we can ensure the correct decisions will be made.  Can you please give this some thought?  Can we make an appointment with your attorney to have this changed soon?

This one example really gets you thinking.  Anytime there is a significant change in your life or a parent’s life, consider discussing with an elder law or estate planning attorney.  Being proactive isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it can head off gut-wrenching issues that will occur at some point, especially if you have elderly loved ones.  Making sound decisions in the midst of crisis is not the optimal time to think clearly.

Lead with love, and start communicating while you can!

©2013 The Estate Lady®

Julie Hall, The Estate Lady®, is the foremost national expert on personal property in estates, including liquidating, advising, and appraising.  She is also the Director of American Society of Estate Liquidators®, the national educational and resource organization for estate liquidation.

Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth is a Thankless Child

(Literal meaning: It is especially painful to raise an ungrateful child.)

Shakespeare really understood human nature, tragic as it can be sometimes.  From his King Lear in 1605, he writes about the pain of a thankless child.

Here’s my hair-raising story:

In an estate I was handling, I was privy to a situation that made my stomach turn.  It still blows my mind!  After all these years, certain situations still get to me … because I care.

Before an elderly parent died, knowing what her children were like, she assigned a trusted friend to be the executor.  The children were estranged, yet greedy.  I cannot comprehend how a child can be estranged, yet still feel they are entitled to an inheritance.  As I have often written in my books, we are entitled to nothing unless it is given to us.  But that’s just my opinion.  It seemed this parent left nothing to the children, save the personal property.  And the hunger games began … literally.

Among the siblings, it became an epic battle of name calling, expert manipulation, grabbing possessions just to spite the other, take as much as they could to sell for cash, and even physical assault.  Besides shaking my head in disbelief, a pitiful thought enters my mind: These behaviors in no way honored the decedent.  Self-centered, disrespectful, discourteous, greedy, bratty …

I wouldn’t want to be around when the karma train pays them a visit.

This parent exited life knowing her children were like that.  Even in death, they pathetically displayed every behavior that shouldn’t be allowed.  This parent lived and died with disappointment and sadness, knowing the kids were like this.  She did what she could from a planning perspective and put someone else in charge of the estate; this was a smart move.  Was this a good parent?  Who knows?  There are two sides to every story, but the kids should at least be respectful in death.

All of these children are middle age which means they are old enough to know better.  They were angry that the parent had the last laugh, so to speak, and hit her in the wallet where it hurt.  This was not  a case of loving and missing a parent so much that they wanted select items for sentimental reasons.

I watched as they stripped this once beautiful home like a school of piranhas would strip a cow bone.  The only emotion was anger.

Lessons I’ve learned from my work:

  1. Do your best to always be genuine, kind, respectful, and loving.
  2. Turn your cheek and bite your tongue often.
  3. Bad behavior can invade your soul, so don’t allow it.
  4. Bad behavior is contagious, so don’t allow it.
  5. Honor those who go before you, and then one day, you’ll be honored too.
  6. Bring as much “light” as you can to the situation.  People can get lost in the dark during estate settlement situations.

©2013 The Estate Lady®

What Have I Done to Deserve That?

Richard is 82 years old and not in good health.  He lives in the Midwest and called me asking for help with his possessions.  He was moving himself into a small private residence, since he can no longer care for himself.  From what I could tell, he is kind natured and soft spoken.  He told me about his many physical ailments such as diabetes, cancer, breathing problems, etc.  Richard was forthcoming, had his wits about him, and was very pragmatic about his limitations.  He told me he was “falling apart” and needed help.

One of the questions I ask people who call me for help is “Do you have any family that can lend a hand?”  Richard has two adult sons.  He said they never call, don’t care about him, and never showed any interest in him or his life.  As a highly decorated veteran who earned a Purple Heart in the Korean War, he lived a full life as a Marine, with many stories to tell.  He was there at the Battle of Chosin Resevoir — a brutal 17 day battle in freezing weather.  It was pretty clear to me that this man had endured the unthinkable, and even in his older age was still a tough Marine, but his voice held a fragility when it came to his sons.

“What did I do to deserve this treatment from my boys?  I worked hard all of my life to provide for them, and now they aren’t there for me.  What did I do wrong?”

Knowing I was in a position to help Richard, I did my best to assure him that the pitiful actions of his children are not of his doing.  They are adults now and have made a decision not to be present in his life.  One day they would live to regret it, as they sort through his possessions and find his Purple Heart, wishing they could ask questions about their father’s valor and what that great battle was really all about.  But by then, it would be too late; the heavy weight of guilt would be upon their shoulders.

I encouraged Richard to build a relationship with his only grandson, who seemed to at least have some interest in him and his life story.

There are times it becomes very clear to me that people cross our paths for just a few minutes, and in that short time, you can either make a difference or not!


Semper Fi, Richard.  May your journey be a peaceful one from this point forward.

© 2013 Julie Hall

In Search Of …

Everybody is in search of something.  We search for happiness, prosperity, vitality, etc.  We search for understanding, the meaning of life, the mysteries of the universe.  We look for people and special places and a million other things – all so that our lives will be meaningful.

In all my years of working in estates, I see clients searching for something too, but many of them haven’t quite figured out what it is they are looking for.  When it comes to clearing out the estate, many of them take way too much stuff only to clutter up their own homes.  You know they will never use those items, yet they continue taking, taking.  Why do they do this?  What void are these things feebly filling, that they didn’t get from the loved one in life?

Are they searching for absolution from a lost parent, or in need of validation of who they were to the parent?  Are they angry with the deceased loved one and never got a chance to make it right?  Are they guilt-ridden?  Did they not receive enough emotional love and support from the parent-child relationship, and now take things feeling “entitled” and holding a grudge?

Things are never a replacement for people.  At the end of our lives, we can’t take these things with us anyway and they will only serve to burden our children who really don’t want the stuff from the start.

When my mother died, here’s what I took from her estate and that very painful experience:

  • I took her beautiful smile and laughter, forever etched in my memory.
  • I took her solid advice and now practice it daily.
  • I took 50 years of memories … family gatherings and good times.
  • I took photographs so I would never forget how blue her eyes were.
  • I took her common sense, good manners, and lady-like disposition, and carry them with me, among many other things.

The point I’m trying to make is that memories are not found in things.  The things you take from an estate will gather dust and be forgotten eventually.  Special memories are already in your heart if you had a good relationship with the loved one.  And if you didn’t/don’t have a good relationship, now is a really good time to try to mend old, crumbling fences.

© 2012 Julie Hall

An Estate Find Tells the Tale of a Bittersweet Love

The colors of the WWI era postcard were the first to catch my attention.  Postmarked 1918, the picture depicts a soldier in uniform holding the hand of a girl he was leaving behind as he heads off to war.  When I flipped the postcard over to read it, their lives suddenly sprung to life.

Her name was Viola and she lived in Virginia.  The only writing on the addressee side is her first name, last name, and the city and state she lived in.  Your first thought, when looking at the simplicity of the card, was how complicated life is now in the 21st century, compared to a time when postmen knew you and where you lived.  But after reading the postcard, perhaps their lives weren’t that simple after all.  It leaves a lot to the imagination.

His name was Thomas and he was writing from Camp Meade.  Apparently, Thomas was quite taken with Viola.

Dearest Viola,  I guess you are somewhat surprised to hear from me.  And although I am taking it upon myself to drop you a card, I hope that one day very soon I can hold your beautiful face in my hands.  What a sweet and wonderful day it will be to see you again!  I thought today that I had to leave for France, But I am still here for a couple of weeks before we go so please answer me.  Yours, Thomas

What Thomas was really trying to do was get up the nerve to tell her how he really felt and that he wanted her in his life.

I wonder whatever happened to Thomas and Viola.  During this time in 1918, WWI was drawing to a close but the men were still actively fighting.  Did Thomas ever go to France, and if so, did he ever return safely to hold Viola’s face?  Did he die valiantly while fighting for his country?  It’s one of the myriad of mysteries we find in estates, and while it is hard to walk away without a firm answer, we simply fill in the blanks the way we would have wanted the story to end.

Thomas came back; Viola fell head over heels in love with him.  They had several children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; they lived to a ripe old age, completely devoted to one another.

In my mind, that’s the ending to this affair of the heart.

© 2012 Julie Hall

Beware of Snowballing Family Lore

I would be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time I heard a family member tell the story of an heirloom in which the story gets bigger and better with every telling.  It’s like the old parable, “The fish that got away was THIS big …” and every time the story is told, the fish miraculously gets bigger.

So too is the challenge we professionals have with discussing and valuating family heirlooms.  I visit clients in their homes and enjoy each of them and listening to their stories.  However, I know what the values really are, regardless of the verbal family stories.  The hard part for me, and for the client, is providing proof that the following really took place: “Did you know Abraham Lincoln sat in that chair?”  “This belt buckle belonged to Robert E. Lee.”  “Our grandmother told us Teddy Roosevelt took a picture with daddy, but we don’t know where that picture went.”  We know what these items are worth on a monetary level, but you can’t place a value on sentimentality.  Sentimentality is priceless and in the mind of the beholder.

Could some of these family stories actually be true?  Perhaps they are, but without provenance, or history of the piece (proof of some kind, like a photo of Abraham Lincoln really sitting in that chair), it leaves a question mark and is difficult to valuate.  Without proof, we can only appraise what we see based on its’ characteristics.

I look back into my experiences with all kinds of families and wonder why most people seem to exaggerate about old possessions.  Here’s what I came up with:

  • It’s their version of the truth as they see it.
  • For attention. (I have something special.)
  • To accentuate the positive.
  • To make the mundane more exciting.

Maybe Abraham Lincoln did sit in that chair.  Or maybe he sat in one just like it and that’s how the story got convoluted.  Someone heard what they wanted to hear, and generations of tongues did the rest.

I don’t want you to be disappointed when you go to sell these items and the prices brought don’t match the stories behind the piece.  If your items mean that much to you, hold on to them and do your best to research the history of that piece for generations to come.

© 2012 Julie Hall