When a parent or close relative dies, the last thing that you want to think about is what to do with their belongings.
But if you aren’t careful at this emotional time, you could lose more than happy memories.
Just ask Terry Kovel, a syndicated columnist who has written 70 books on antiques and collectibles with her husband, Ralph. She says grieving survivors often throw out or give away valuable antiques and collectibles because they think they’re ugly or because they get conned by scheming relatives.
The first thing you should do in the emotional time after a close relative dies is lock the doors of the deceased’s home.
“Don’t give the keys to anyone except the brother you trust,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “Don’t give them to the brother you don’t trust. Don’t give them to the lawyer. Don’t allow the landlord to get in or the cleaning woman.”
She admits she may sound cynical, but she has good reason. She and her husband have seen it all when they have been hired to estimate the value of an estate. During the emotional aftermath of a death, things mysteriously disappear, she said. And people seem to think that these “things” aren’t money, so it’s OK.
“You will find relatives coming over and saying that Aunt Suzy promised them the silver bowl,” Kovel said. “Don’t give anything away when you are emotional.
“Don’t be surprised and don’t bear grudges about things that happen. There is an emotional attachment to things that no one quite understands until they are in the middle of an estate.”
If you can, wait until you can get over the stress of the death before you handle the liquidation, she said. And before you go through the material goods with other heirs, set strict ground rules.
How bad can it get? She gave the example of four sisters who got together to split up the possessions of their dead stepmother.
Kovel, who was hired to appraise the valuables, spent several hours opening crates that had been in storage for years. Throughout this process, the sisters kept asking about the whereabouts of a dining room painting.
“When the painting finally surfaced, we would have had a fistfight if we hadn’t had some rules ahead of time,” Kovel said. “They had agreed to bid on the painting and when they were finished one of them paid $5,000 for something that was worth about $500. It didn’t matter. They all remember it hanging in the dining room and they all wanted it.”
To avoid problems, she suggests you agree on a system. Heirs could draw lots or have everyone put colored dots on the things they want. If two people put dots on the same item, decide in advance on a system for handling the situation, such as bidding for it like the sisters did. In their case, the $5,000 was put into the estate to be divided among the heirs.
Another Kovelism: Don’t throw anything out. Just because it looks ugly or beat up, don’t assume it’s worthless.
Kovel suggested getting help from a friend who is knowledgeable about antiques and collectibles. If the friend says you have a lot of great stuff, call in an auction house that works on a commission basis. She added that calling in a dealer isn’t a good idea because he is working to get the lowest price for himself.
“If there isn’t much of value there, you may want to have a house sale,” she said. “But I don’t advise you do it yourself. I don’t even advise that you go. You’ll find yourself sobbing as grandma’s favorite chair goes for what you think is too low a price.”
It’s also important to remove personal items such as family pictures, trophies or engraved items from the sale out of respect.
One of the hazards is that people always think the wrong things are valuable, Kovel said.
“They know that the silverware and the good dishes are worth some money,” she said.
“But it never dawns on them that the pot grandma always put the plant in could be worth something. Old Christmas ornaments can bring a ton of money and so can old children’s toys.”
Kovel says the biggest rule to remember in settling estates is that there are confusing emotions you will be experiencing.
“You really aren’t thinking clearly. Try to keep your wits about you. If you still feel too emotional, don’t do it now.”