How to Deal with a Cluttered Estate

When my grandmother passed away a couple of years ago, we were all devastated. Beyond the initial grief, however, there was also dismay – my father had been pushing her for years to declutter and downsize, and we knew that she had only ever made the most token of efforts. She had been living in the same house for the last sixty years, and she had rarely, if ever, thrown away anything. It took us two weeks just to reduce it to the point that we could box the rest. We filled over a hundred and seventy boxes, and we’re still going through them today.

This situation is not unusual, and it is a source of anxiety and frustration for many people administering the estate of a loved one. There is simply too much to go through, on top of the demands of their daily lives, and they often resort to donating or throwing away anything that is not obviously worth saving. In the process, they get rid of things that may have had significant emotional or monetary value – and don’t even realize it.

What can be done about this situation?

Those who are planning ahead can avoid this situation by working now to reduce their possessions and get rid of things they are no longer enjoying. They can also speak to their loved ones – especially the person or people they have chosen to administer their estate – about any items that have significant value, either emotionally or monetarily, which may not be obvious at first glance. My father almost donated an antiquated device in my grandmother’s house, before finding a note that explained that this toaster from the 1800s had been buried in a volcanic eruption and unearthed 70 years later, still intact. Once he learned the story behind it, it became valuable to him. If my grandmother had not thought to write a note about it, he would never have known and would have donated it to a museum, who may or may not have kept it themselves.

For those who find themselves administering an estate with large amounts of “stuff” (for lack of a better word), there are some options besides tearing your hair out or getting rid of almost everything. There are appraisers who can tell you if there are valuable items sitting around the house. There are also professional organizers who would love to help you sort through everything. And, if your family gets along, you can always enlist the help of relatives to go through things and identify items that are valuable, or that have a history behind them.

For more suggestions and ideas, please email me at

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