‘Til Death Do Us Part

Most of us enjoy hearing those words during a wedding ceremony, where the new couple is floating in bliss and envision being by each other’s side until death separates them.  From my perspective, however, I see people who have a very passionate relationship with their material possessions, sometimes more so than each other!  If I didn’t know better, I would say they behave as if they can take their possessions with them when they leave this earth, but we know that we can’t take stuff with us.

I have seen it all.  In all those years of estate work, I have tried to figure out why people have such a hard time “letting go.”  Often, the Depression Era generation is the one that has accumulated the most, in my experience.  Their parents did not have much and probably possessed more utilitarian items because of the era in which they lived.  When their parents passed away, they did not distribute or sell those items … they absorbed them.  The boomers have multiple generations of stuff to deal with when their Depression Era parents pass away.

Here are a few thoughts on why people hold on to so much:

  • You just never know when I’m going to need this.
  • There are so many things I could use this for.
  • If I hold onto it long enough, it will become valuable.
  • It is already old, so it must be valuable.
  • I did without as a child and I will not do without again.
  • It was a gift and I will honor the giver by keeping it.
  • The more I leave the kids, the more they will have.
  • I worked very hard for these things and I will pass them down.
  • They bring comfort and familiarity.
  • Sentimental reasons.
  • Too overwhelmed to let it go — emotional attachment.
  • I’ll let my kids deal with this after I’m gone.

As an appraiser of residential contents, this is the part where I try to put my clients at ease.  When in doubt, always have the contents of an estate appraised prior to distributing or selling contents.  Most times, the heirs are not surprised to learn that much of what mom and dad amassed doesn’t have much value.  Some children feel that items might be “junk” and some pieces do turn out to have significant value, pleasantly surprising them.  Family stories through the years can add to the anticipation that great-grandfather’s chair is more valuable because it is so old, but age is not the only factor of value.  There are many more characteristics of value we look at to determine it’s worth.

Another important issue that the older generation should realize is that many of their heirs already have houses that are full of accumulation from 25+ years of marriage.  Adding more stuff will only fuel marital strife.  I’ve seen divorces happen over keeping too much stuff.

Some kids keep items to sell, others for sentimental reasons. others because they feel guilt because “mother would kill me if I didn’t keep this.”  The younger generation appear to want nothing but cash assets.  Even if your children do take a few items, their children definitely don’t want them now, and most likely will feel the same in the future.  They are not interested in antiques or traditional possessions when they could take the cash and go to IKEA or Pottery Barn.  This is the trend.

Holding on to possessions because you don’t want to let them go will leave a massive burden on your children.  Gifting now and making plans for the distribution of your possessions while you are still here (and in control of those decisions) is the best plan of action.  Take it from one who knows!

©2013 The Estate Lady®

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

Getting Your Affairs in Order is Not Just for the Elderly

In years gone by, I can recall that the majority of my clients were the elderly looking for help downsizing.  Somewhere around 2003, that all changed and the calls coming into my office were coming from children looking for help handling their parents’ estates after they passed away or help cleaning out their estates.

Today, things have shifted once again.  While I still work with the elderly occasionally, and certainly work with the boomer children who are the majority of my business, I see an ever-increasing (and hair-raising) trend of hearing from younger children whose parents have died unexpectedly in their 50s and 60s.

We all seem to be programmed that infirmity and death only occur in old age.  Sadly, this is not the case.  Perhaps it is wishful thinking on our part, or not wanting to think about it at all.  But in my work, I am seeing more and more of my deceased clients are eerily close to my own age, and I never thought of myself as being old.  I find myself thinking about my clients, and what they are going through, because most of their parents don’t take the time to plan ahead, especially when they are still relatively young.  This throws the grieving children into more of a tail-spin because they may not have had “The Talk.”

Many children do not know what their parents’ final wishes are, nor how the estate is to be divided.  They don’t even know if the parents have a Will or Trust.  These are HUGE issues that weigh heavily on those left behind.

Estate Lady Tips:

  1. Don’t do that to your children or beneficiaries.  You are mortal and a plan has to be shared with loved ones.  While you may not want to discuss this, you will feel much better after you do, and your children will thank you for it.  They will be especially grateful when the time comes, realizing the care you took ahead of time to make their lives easier.  Make an appointment to have a Will/Trust drawn up this week.
  2. Don’t die in debt.  This is a horrid situation.  Suffice it to say you create a nightmare for those dealing with your estate.
  3. Ask for an addendum to your Will so you can assign who gets what.  Better yet, give it away while you are still living so there is less to fight about after you are gone.
  4. Start clearing out your home now, even if you are young.  Don’t let it accumulate or it will snowball on you.  gain control of the house (and the piles of stuff we all have) and start clearing out.  Once a month, drop off items to a charity, or arrange for them to come to the house for a pick up.  Have yard sales for a little extra spending money.  If you haven’t seen it or used it in a year, let it go.
  5. Talk to your spouse and children about what you want.  Both of my parents died without much warning.  It’s a good thing they told us what they wanted and had the legal documents to back up their wishes.  When the time came (and it did when I least expected it), I knew exactly what to do.  I can still hear mom telling me, “Dad and I don’t want you to go through any more than you have to, because you will be going through enough when the time comes.  We want to make this as easy as possible on you, and we have made these decisions ahead of time to remove additional stress placed on you.”  This was music to my ears, not fully understanding the massive impact until I had to make a life and death decision for one of them.  I still can’t believe how much love they had for us.

These are not easy things to do.  Doing them sooner, rather than later, will change the way you think about these issues and make it much easier for you and your family in the future.  Take it from one who sees this trouble everyday.

Resources from the Estate Lady:

©2013 The Estate Lady®

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

“I Never Saw it Coming!”

A client of mine knew he faced a hellacious task ahead of him — cleaning out the parental home of lifelong collectors.  Some people call it collecting; others like myself call it pseudo-hoarding.  After an initial consultation, and explaining the process of disassembling the estate, he was completely on-board with emptying the house.  I promised I could undo 40 years of heavy “collecting” in 56 hours.

He assured me the family had already chosen the items they wanted to keep, and we even gave his sibling a few extra days to go through it.  My instructions were clear; please make your selections and remove the items because once I am in the home, it would be best to remain away until our work is done.  The client was very understanding of this and we scheduled the work.

On a personal level, I know it can be emotionally draining to go through this process of sorting through and selecting items from mom and dad’s home, who are now deceased.  I have always believed this is part of the grieving process.  But there is a fine line where it can quickly turn to hoarding, and it becomes clear a child can’t let go for numerous reasons.  I have long preached that memories are not found in things, but in the precious relationships we build along the way.  Sadly, most people do not get this concept.

Long story short, one sibling could not stay away from the home, and could not stop filling their vehicle each day.  Things were missing that were slated for auction; so much that we had to all but cancel the auctioneer!  My client was most baffled by his sibling’s actions.  “I don’t understand why they are doing this!  I have been very clear with them to stay away, and they assured me they didn’t want much.  I don’t get it.  I NEVER saw this coming!  Why are they doing this?”

The explanation was simple:  She could not properly digest that mom and dad were gone, and as a close second to having them there (which is no longer possible), she took their possessions.  I also see many children who never made amends or rectified any pending issues prior to a parent passing away.  This leaves a tremendous weight on their shoulders that they don’t know how to deal with.  The problem now became that this sibling took so much, there was no room in their own home to enjoy.  Don’t look now, but they just continued the pattern of being a heavy collector, I mean … hoarder.

It is easy for me to critique what I see because I am on the outside looking in.  I know the sibling who took so much will be miserable with all this stuff.  They won’t be able to move around their own house, which forces them to make decisions to let go of some items when they are not thinking clearly, probably causing marital strife also.

Bottom line: Just when you think you can predict a family member’s actions, you can’t!  We all handle infirmity, death, and grief differently.  In this case, there was one sibling who was in serious emotional turmoil and could benefit from grief counseling — and I mean that most sincerely, as it helped me greatly.

©2013 The Estate Lady®

An Estate is a Sitting Target

(Please send this to everyone you know is dealing with an estate.)

I just received yet another sad phone call.  A client’s deceased father’s home was broken into and 90% of the estate is now gone.  These thieves weren’t in any rush either.  They came with a huge truck, left odds and ends in the yard, drank beer as evidenced by beer cans left around the home, and proceeded to rob this family without care, concern, conscience, or karma.  Not only is she grieving, but now she has this to contend with as well.  The contents of this estate were sitting, waiting for a long distance sibling to arrive in town to divide it with his sister.

The old phrase “sitting duck” applies here.  It alludes to a duck floating on the water, not suspecting that it is the object of a hunter or predator.  Let’s take a closer look at this situation, so we can avoid it in the future.

Since the beginning of man, there have been thieves.  Through the millennia, man has stolen everything from other people held for ransom, to meat, to money, to gold, you name it.  But take a good look at the state of our economy right now.  Unscrupulous individuals, who feel entitled to take what others have rightfully earned and inherited, are moving in on the good side of man.  They saw a house sitting, they made a plan, and they helped themselves.  As times get tougher, we will see more of this.

Do you really think law enforcement is going to find these possessions?  My guess is no — they are gone forever — slipping into flea markets, personal safes, sold cheap, etc.  I’m not blaming the police, as they are overwhelmed with this sort of thing on a daily basis.  In my opinion, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve said it before in my writings and I’d like to offer the best advice.  Don’t let the estate be a sitting duck.  Deal with it in a timely manner, get professionals in there to help you, and get it done.  The longer it sits, the more likely it will become a target.

With the permission of the executor (unless the executor already has done so), document and remove all the valuables from the home so they can be divided at a later date: sterling items and flatware, gold, jewelry, high-end electronics, expensive tools, etc.  Keys/locks should be changed immediately upon learning of a death, because you don’t know everyone who has keys.  Work through the estate and don’t delay!  Don’t become one more ugly statistic, like this grieving woman who only did what she thought was right by waiting.  Work closely with siblings, and find the time to meet to make decisions.

© 2012 Julie Hall

I’m Seeing a Paradigm Shift

Lately, I have had an influx of calls that are resembling a pattern.  Boomer children are coming to grips with the financial hardship of long-term care for our elderly parents — and it comes at a high price.  We are living longer, but not necessarily healthier.

It used to be these boomers, of which I am one of them, called me to come out and appraise a few items or advise them on the best way to dissolve their estate.  Today, the phone calls have shifted to something a little more alarming.  “We need you to come out and advise us what these items will bring in today’s market.  Mom is in assisted living/nursing home and we have to sell everything to keep up with her care.  We even have to sell the family silver and heirlooms.”

These distress calls for help are a sign of the times.  It’s part poor economy, part living longer, and part not planning or saving as well as we could have or should have during our lives.  But even that last statement has multiple causes … I know many people who worked hard their entire lives, or were quite affluent, only to lose it in the stock market, ending up in possible foreclosure or financial ruin.

Sometimes it’s as simple as going through all the money the parent had, and now the children are doing their best to keep the parents’ care going; that includes selling what the children thought were valuable heirlooms.  Sometimes they do have value and sometimes they don’t, but the wrong time to sell is when the market is soft.

We need to learn from these hardships which are taking so much out on the children.  All of them thought it wouldn’t happen to them, but it did and it can.

I see a common denominator:  We are buying too much stuff we don’t need.  Shopping compulsions abound for men and for women.  At the end of the day, we are surrounded by piles of stuff and little money for our future.

MORAL TO THE STORY:  The frugal survive and thrive.  A little less HSN and QVC and a little more money saved for a rainy day.  This won’t solve all our problems, but it will build our confidence that we are doing all we can for an uncertain future, especially in healthcare costs.

© 2012 Julie Hall

If I Only Knew Then, What I Know Now

Over 20 years ago while sitting at my corporate desk, I had this crazy idea that if I was going to work this hard for them, I might as well work that hard for myself.  I kept thinking, “Julie, how can you even think of this?  You must be off your rocker to consider leaving the reliability of a paycheck and benefits.”  But it was like a lightning bolt from the sky – an intense thought that grabbed hold of this young woman at the exuberant age of 28, and it never let go.

From that day to this, I feel compelled to share with everyone reading these words, that if I had a chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.  It was the right decision, and honestly comes with zero regret.  However, it was not an easy road.  In fact, there was no road at all in my chosen field.  Therefore, I found myself at an instant crossroad before I even took my first step.  Do I move forward into the abyss, not knowing what I am doing, and make a road for others to follow one day?  Or should I turn around and stay in a job that I didn’t care for, with a steady paycheck?  As it turned out, I discovered I am an excellent bulldozer and I paved my way through.

To fulfill your purpose, your calling, it takes great strength and stamina.  More than that, it takes tenacity of the spirit, a positive mindset when you feel like crumbling and crying (yes, it will happen), and the ability to get back up when you were just knocked down.

As a mother, when my daughter was learning to walk and she stumbled and fell, I would encourage her to get right back up immediately, brush herself off, and go on to her next adventure.  Such is life.  Get right back up and no matter what, keep moving forward.  Throughout the years, there have been many times I related myself to the hamster that jumped on the wheel with lots of vigor, but never really ended up anywhere.  Looking back, I actually was going somewhere, but I couldn’t see it at the time.

Here, in a nutshell, I share with you the most important lessons I have learned as a woman, and in building my dream:

  1. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do itYou can and will find a way.  People who normally say things like that can be a bit envious of your spirit, or perhaps live with regret themselves.  It’s also possible that they just don’t understand it.
  2. If you don’t try, you will always wonder what “could have been.”  Avoid living with regret and guilt by trying your best.  Nothing bad can ever come from trying.
  3. When you come to a crossroad in your life, always go with your gut instinct.  Our heads often get in the way of what our gut already knows.  My gut has never lied to me.  Tune into it, listen attentively, and keep moving.  Look how many times it took Thomas Edison to get it right!
  4. Stay the course.  So you have stumbled and what you had planned isn’t working.  Assess what went wrong, temporarily step back and ask, ask, and ask again until the answers come.  Sometimes the answers come from an unexpected source.
  5. Figure out what makes you different.  What are your special gifts?  Are you using them?  If not, get to it and watch happiness seep in.
  6. To thine own self, be true.  Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare.  Speak your mind, communicate openly, and never, ever sell your soul to the dark side.
  7. Identify what it is you want to do with your life.  I am an estate professional who specializes in personal property.  Do I just sell people’s stuff?  No, I sell a solution.  Solve their problem, lighten their load, and I can guarantee you a successful outcome.  What you want to do is make a difference and make it count.
  8. Follow through with passion and tenacity.  If you have an idea, run with it.  Don’t flop over on the sofa because you don’t know how to get started.  Just take the first step.
  9. Be the best at what you do.  If you are going to do something like start a business, or volunteer, or take a new job … do your best.  Mom always said, “If you’re going to plant a tree, plant it straight.”
  10. Always look forward and never look back.  Ever notice how some people live in the past and seem to get stuck there?  It’s ok to visit the past and learn from what went wrong, but then turn it into a positive, so it works to your benefit.
  11. For every problem you encounter, there is a solution.
  12. Always be kind, courteous, and compassionate.  Kindness gets noticed because so few people actually practice it.

© 2012 Julie Hall

You Can’t Take it with You!

Joanne was in her mid-seventies, and her daughter knew mom just couldn’t take care of a house over 4,000 square feet on over an acre of land.  Joanne had to have a home that large to house all of her possessions.  She needed to downsize and move to Assisted Living, but she was giving her daughter a very difficult time about the move.

The daughter made an appointment for me to come over and educate them in the estate sale process.  Her exact words: “Mom’s got 4,000 square feet full of stuff, junk and everything else, and it’s time to sell it all so she can fit into her new place.”  To complicate the matter, the house had already sold!

Throughout the conversation at Joanne’s house, I had a familiar feeling that I had to share.  I addressed the daughter who had asked me to come: “I would be happy to assist you in selling the remainder of this estate, but I have a funny feeling mom will not part with anything.”

Joanne looked over at me and gave me a “cat ate the canary” grin; I knew she was up to something.  The daughter insisted that all of the possessions had to go.  Still, I persisted as gracefully as I knew how.  “I think your mom might have other plans for it, don’t you, Joanne?”  Again, I received the same grin, but she sat silent, as if this was punishing her daughter for trying to make the right decision.

The daughter became increasingly disturbed, and I was caught in the middle.  “Mom, what is going on?”  Still, no reply from her mother.  Once more, I put on my gentle voice and stuck my neck out.  “I’d be willing to guess mom has other plans for her possessions.  Something like storage.”  Mom’s face was simply beaming.  I had hit the nail on the head!

The daughter’s face grew dark like an impending storm, and demanded to know what nonsense mom was up to.  Finally, it came out.  “Julie’s right.  I’ve already reserved four extra large storage units.  I’m not giving it away, or selling it.  It’s mine.  No one can have it but me!”

The lady who wouldn’t let go ended up moving and placing everything in storage, to the tune of over $7,000 per year.

Moral: You can’t take it with you, no matter how hard you try!

© 2012 Julie Hall

“Oh, I’ll Get to it One Day.”

The trouble is … “one day” never comes!

It’s fascinating what we professionals notice in our clients’ estates.  For example, we do see a distinct similarity in almost all of the estates we go into, especially if the estate belonged to an elderly loved one from the Depression Era.  The attics are usually full and the interesting thing is that 85% of them are full of things that really should have been disposed of 30+ years ago.

By the time we get into these attics to clear them out, the books are rotted and have been gnawed on, anything cardboard has pretty much disintegrated, clothing either smells like mildew or falls apart in your hands, or you find items that have long since been obsolete and no one has any use for them.  If items of value were stored in the attic (which is a big no-no), chances are pretty good they have been damaged and the value greatly diminished.  This is not always the case, but is generally what we find.

My assistant has a saying when we are working in the daunting attics, up to our elbows in stuff: “They were young when they put this stuff up there.  By the time they finally figure out it has to be dealt with, they are 85 years old and can’t get up here anymore.”

So true.  Time stops for no man and it does move rather quickly.  We all have the best intentions of cleaning out the shed, garage, closets, cupboards … but if you continue to procrastinate and something happens where you or your loved one become incapacitated, it truly leaves a burden for the ones you leave behind.  A bigger burden than you realize.

If you have had your sights on a project around the house which includes clearing out some “stuff,” make sure you know what it is worth before you sell it or give it away.  It is better to clear out the clutter now so you can feel better about it and not worry.  Believe me, your loved ones will really appreciate it one day. 


© 2011 Julie Hall

Places to Find Hidden Treasure

Many older people have a long-term distrust of banks and often hide their valuables in the strangest places.  If your parents are European immigrants, they have an even greater tendency to do this, and if either parent has dementia or Alzheimer’s, they likely have hidden things and forgot about them.

Many seniors hide money and valuables that often go unnoticed in the liquidation of their estates.  Here are the most common places where these valuables may exist:

  • Clothing and shoes — especially breast pockets in a man’s suit coat, under an insert in the sole of a shoe, wrapped in socks or underwear, bra cups.
  • Drapery hems — a favorite hiding place for small jewelry or coins
  • Canister sets — rare coins or jewelry in the flour or sugar canister and sometimes in cookie tins
  • Books — paper money slid between the pages of a book
  • Ice cube trays — a favorite place for small jewelry or gemstones
  • Toilet tank — another place for jewelry
  • Duct tape — money or jewelry wrapped tightly in a wadded ball
  • Picture frames — between the picture and the mat or backing material
  • Attic rafters — favorite place for coins, jewelry, and antiques

You’ll need to use some detective skills to be sure that when you liquidate their home and estate, you don’t leave anything valuable behind.

© 2010 Julie Hall

6 Practical Ways to Help Your Parents This Fall

Now that the weather is cooling and the leaves are ready to fall, here are 6 practical ways that you can assist your elderly parents.

  1. Help your parents protect all their assets.  Know all the professionals they work with, i.e. CPA, financial planner, attorney, etc.
  2. Know the location of all their important documents.  If the documents are in a locked cabinet or fireproof storage, know where the keys are kept.
  3. Have the important conversations with them about their wishes for the future, who will be their executor, healthcare power of attorney, and discuss distribution of the heirlooms and personal property.
  4. You can’t take it with you!  If they are able, suggest to your parents that they write a master list of who should get what, and give the document to the executor.  Or, they can ask each child what they would like to have, and put that on a “wish list”.  A document cuts down on the “he said-she said” that often goes on when settling an estate.
  5. Start de-cluttering and thinning out your parents’ home now.  Often children are overwhelmed by the amount of “stuff” in their Depression Era parents’ home.  This is a good way to begin the process of cleaning out, so you won’t have to do it all at once later.  Make sure you have their permission.
  6. Always come from a place of love.  You will have several difficult conversations and awkward moments when asking your parents these questions.  Always approach them with love.  For example, “Mom, we are very worried about you and would like to have a talk about what you would like for your future.  Sue and I would like to honor your wishes, but first, we need to know what those wishes are.”

For more practical tips and compassionate advice, read my best-selling book, The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff.  Check the right side of my blog for a link to order both my books.

© 2010 Julie Hall