How to Sort a Deceased Person’s Belongings While Avoiding Family Conflicts

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Photo courtesy Jonathan Billinger

By Nancy Peham
Special Contributor

Nothing is guaranteed in life except death and taxes, and when we leave this world someone has to deal with — and sort — the physical things we leave behind.

While my mother was alive, she shared her worries that when she died her children would be torn apart by the process of dividing her belongings.  

I have been very fortunate to be one of four daughters who grew up in a close-knit family.  I know that’s not always the case among siblings, which can make the process of liquidating a parent’s belongings result in hurt feelings, claims of unfairness, and the rekindling of sibling rivalries.  In my family, just knowing that my mother feared a fracturing of relationships made us all work harder to come out on the other side of the process remaining close.

Your loved one’s home may contain many years of accumulated possessions, be in a state of disarray, or be neat as a pin with only the essentials stored in its closets and cupboards.  You may need to empty the house quickly or perhaps you have the luxury of time. Family members might live close by or be scattered around the country. All of these factors will influence the speed and ease of the task ahead.  And, depending on whether they have flexibility with work schedules, family commitments, or other issues, some siblings may not be able to help with the process.

It’s important to get family members to agree on a few things before you start.

Will you be planning an estate sale or garage sale, or do you want to donate most of the unwanted household items to a charity?

Do you want to hire someone to sort through everything so that the family can come together on a weekend to decide how to disburse the belongings?  

Will you need to rent a dumpster for the cleanout of bulky, broken or un-useable items, or will the city or special service come to pick up the bulk trash?

Are family members willing to designate a person to be in charge of making decisions about the un-contested items? Will they be compensated in some way for their time by other family members?

In my case, being an organizer and someone with a flexible schedule, it made the most sense for me to sort my mom’s belongings so that when my sisters were available, we could divide them more easily.

My first step was to tag the items listed in my mom’s will with different colored stickers designating each person’s inheritance.  Later, we used the same sticker colors to identify other things we wanted. When it was finally time to choose our favorite things (in a fair and orderly manner) we used a deck of cards to determine the rotation.  From highest to lowest card number we took turns choosing. At the end of each category, the person with the lowest card was first to pick a card for the next round.

But first, everything in the house needed to be organized by category.  

One category included clothing shoes and accessories.  Another, bed linens, towels, blankets, tablecloths, and other fabric items.

Furniture was left where it was, but anything contained in its drawers was removed an added to the appropriate category.

I gathered the kitchen dishes, pots and pans, appliances and gadgets from the cupboards and laid them out on countertops and tables so they could easily be seen.

In the pantry, all the expired and open food containers were thrown out.  The rest was boxed up for donation to a local food bank.

In addition to the everyday items, I pulled all the holiday decorations out of the attic and placed them in the open.  

The garage was like another house. There, I separated the tools, lawn equipment, and all the various and sundry items found in a typical or atypical garage.

For most families, when it comes to the everyday items listed above its usually fairly easy to make quick decisions.  Where it gets difficult is tackling the sentimental or otherwise valuable items such as jewelry, artwork, collections, photographs, keepsakes, nick- knacks, china, antiques, silver or other items that weren’t assigned to a family member in a will.

Photos and photo albums, diaries, letters, and genealogy research may require a significant amount of time to go through.  Families may want to consider digitizing or scanning these items so that everyone who’s interested can have a complete set.

One category which shouldn’t be overlooked is anything that’s stored on electronic devices such as phones and computers, VHS tapes, slides, or other media. To make it easier for your own family when the time comes, be sure you put together a list of passwords for your social media accounts, online bill paying, banking, financial accounts, or anything else you do online that requires a password.

Mail, bills, financial documents, legal documents, and home files should all be gathered together and appropriate papers given to the executor of the estate.  The remainder can be dealt with by a designated person. This task can be done offsite if more convenient.

Liquidating a family home is a complicated and time-consuming process.  With planning, organization, open communication, patience, and a little bit of humor it can be done. And you can keep your family relationships intact!  

Please feel free to share your experiences and ideas with me on this topic.  I’d love to hear from you.


Nancy Peham, a Certified Professional Organizer® and member of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals, is celebrating 17 years as an organizer and owner of Helping Hands Personal Services. She can be reached through her website, or at nancy@HelpingHandsPs.com.