Let’s talk about dying.

thI picked DF up at the airport last night. He’d spent nearly a week in the Lower 48 dealing with his father’s end-of-life issues. Hospice is now involved and his dad is being made comfortable. He feels extreme weakness but no pain and is receiving oxygen as needed.

DF spent most waking hours slogging through reams of paperwork and bushels of belongings. Bank, insurance and health records were every which way. The power of attorney (written some years back) turned out to be problematic so DF had to get it rewritten, re-signed and re-notarized.

One agency wanted to know the names of all doctors his father had seen in the past two years, and guess what? Nobody knew. Heck, there wasn’t even a record of the defibrillator he’d had implanted.

Just as difficult was sorting through tons of accumulated possessions. The library said “no thanks” to most of his father’s old books. Boxes of odd belongings collected over the years, including “several hundred pounds of electronics that just didn’t work,” had to be either donated or dumped.

Taking care of business

DF came home exhausted, but glad that he was able to be there and to handle the many details and chores that his dad’s soon-to-be-widow (who’s in her 90s) is unable to accomplish. He brought with him a suitcase of odds and ends and two ironclad decisions:

  • To sort through the basement, which houses his own collection of this and that, and
  • To make sure all his own paperwork is in one place and easy to understand, so his own kids don’t have such a hard time when that time comes.

He suggested that this would make a good post topic: Clean up your crap and organize your end-of-life paperwork. th-1

I agree. Don’t leave it to others to figure out whether you have any insurance or wonder where you might have put the will. (Don’t have a will? For God’s sake, write one. Now. This article on Nolo gives the basics.)

Keep on top of the clutter, too. Do you want your heirs to have to deal with things like old crocheting supplies and back copies of Field and Stream?

Few of us want to think about getting ready to die. The alternative is leaving a huge, tangled mess for your loved ones. They’re going to have a hard enough time dealing with their grief. Don’t make them try to guess the name of your lawyer, or whether you preferred cryonics to cremation.

Spelling it all out is one last, loving act. Don’t forget to include the password to the safe.

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  1. I actually think about this fairly often and constantly review for clutter, extra books and extra clothes. I have no boxes of junk packed away anywhere.

    However, it never occurred to me to give someone to combination to our large safe. Dang, that’s a good idea.

    • Donna Freedman

      Good on you for dealing with clutter, vs. leaving it to your heirs to handle.

  2. My neighbor died at 94 with every bit of stuff intact. Her daughter and gdaughter and sil spend weeks washing every dish and sorting through the house, arranging everything on borrowed tables in order to have an estate sale. Her children and gchildren took the furniture and possessions they wanted. Then, they gave me what I wanted from the house and all the huge rocks/boulders and flower bulbs that I desired. No one thought it was a burden.

    My neighbor had done the same thing for her mother and then her husband. No one talked of it as a burden. The elderly and ill died peacefully, knowing no one would force them to be parted from their possessions as long as they were alive.

    The one thing my neighbor did say was that as soon as her husband died she called her sil and told him to get rid of the dogs her husband made her promise to care for while he was in the hospital. She hated the mess and burden of the dogs but never let him know while he was dying. She fulfilled her promise.

    I never had the privilege of disposing of my mother’s things because my sister seized everything. There will be a ton of books when I die and a ton of sewing machines and sewing things. If my older daughter cleans out my things, she will dump or sell anything to do with books or sewing. She does read voraciously but gets rid of books. She refuses to sew.

    I am not disagreeing with your information, just showing a different attitude I have seen right before me for the last 30 years,an attitude that honors a person and belongings, even if the belongings do go straight in the trash.

    This is not to say anyone does not honor the belongings of the about-to-die or the dead. I just hate to think of it as a burden.

    Of course, the will, medical records, and all financial papers and a person’s wishes should be in order. At this point, I have not finished decluttering. But, believe me there will be plenty to go through but not things that are trash. Yes, my hundreds of patterns will be trash, I am sure. But, I did toss about 30 of them, so the hundred is not so much. Am I deluded?

    However, I am conflicted on this issue.

    • Donna Freedman

      I didn’t use the word “burden.” However, I think we owe it to our heirs to make things as simple as possible.
      You mentioned three people spending “weeks” taking care of your neighbor’s estate — not everyone can get that much time away from his or her responsibilities. If all you can manage is a week away from family/job but you get there and realize it’s going to take a lot longer, well, corners will have to be cut somewhere. Myself, I’d rather reduce the stress by making it easier to deal with my belongings.
      DF’s mom has a rule: Every time she brings something new home, she gets rid of two items she already owns. I’m in awe of her ability to follow through.

      • No, you did not mention “burden,” but others don’t want to burden their heirs. The part that made it take so long was that they Scrubbed ever pot, pan, plate, glass in the cabinets so the could display it to sell without anyone seeing anything of hers dusty or grimy. THEN, the scrubbed the house from top to bottom. They were very protective of her image. I hope only to leave good stuff behind. But, who knows which of my real treasures is a piece of garbage to a child? THAT is the tough part, I imagine. I hope I am sensible enough to give up my sewing machines when I am not capable of sewing anymore.

        I do try to look at things with a critical eye, and face facts, giving things up because I just don’t use, won’t use, and children probably won’t use certain items. Selling things and getting money sure helps to let things go. And, I have not missed one thing I have sold or given away. . . yet. I cannot even remember what they are. I did take pictures and the pictures are enough now.

    • Barrayaran

      I don’t think your neighbor’s “getting rid of” the dogs she promised to care for as soon as her husband died counts as keeping her promise. I can’t imagine a pet owner concerned enough to request that they be cared for, but only for his own lifetime, not theirs.

      I will definitely be clearer with my heirs.

  3. My whole entire interest in minimalism began after I had to take care of my Dad’s stuff when he passed away. He was a sort-of hoarder. Not full-blown but tons of useless stuff. We put his house up for sale and two days later we had a cash buyer who wanted to close in 15 days. I cannot even begin to tell the story in under 1000 pages, but it involved dumpsters and a neighbor’s tree fire blowing into the dumpsters and fire trucks and firemen and my sister renting a moving van to rescue some stuff and multiple Goodwill runs and neighbors taking stuff and a bad termite nest in a closet that was filled from top to bottom…but in the end we did get it all clear and clean in 15 days. And I went home and was RUTHLESS in my clearing out of my possessions. I was determined to not put my kids through that. Now, six years later I do have mild regrets about a couple of things I donated or trashed. But I do live a very simple, uncluttered life now and it is good!

    • I hear this kind of story a lot more often than I hear the “family members came and spent weeks polishing up the old homestead so it could be sold.”

      Don’t know a single person who would be able to take more than two weeks off work to deal with a bereavement. Assuming that family members will do it, or would do it, or should do it to honor your memory is pretty egotistical.

      My parents are fairly uncluttered in terms of physical objects but in their mid-70s there is still no estate plan. I don’t know what they are thinking.

      • my mom spent months on her sister’s stuff. Months. She’s retired, so she could, but it was really, really hard on her – sorting out medical bills and competing claims from friends who had been helping out during the months and years of illness, finding documents, distributing things, setting up the estate sale, selling the house…I went up for one week, including the memorial service, and she was so stressed and in grief, she was having short-term memory and decisionmaking problems, not sleeping, not eating.

  4. Ro in San Diego

    I have been trying for sometime now to get the clutter monster tamed. Your end-of-life example has given me a new motivation. I have seen a few Estate sales recently where the deceased, or elderly person who had to move to a “home” had piece after piece of, well, trash is the only word that pops to mind. I don’t want to burden my family like that. I try to make at least one trip to the Salvation Army or Goodwill with stuff that it useable, and I haven’t used it in a while. And those shoes I haven’t worn in more than a year – they’re getting packed up too. I like the idea of ridding the house of 2 for every one I bring home.

  5. Barbara

    Great ideas. My best friend is sorting through items from that his recently departed brother left. There are many items he loves to discover while he sorts (photo’s, fishing lures, and even duck calls) but then there are items such as expired grocery coupons from the early 1980’s (yes, my teenager took out his phone and took a picture to show his friends), and receipts for misc. things he purchased decades earlier.

    One thing I suggest to those out there trying to cut costs on funeral expense is to contact your local state anatomical board. You can donate your entire body to medical schools (and not to be plasinized and used a part of a traveling show) and assist the next generation of medical students. I am doing that (or so I have stated in my will).

  6. Barbara R.

    My mother left everything neat and clean and organized. She even went through all her photos and wrote descriptions on the back. I never realized how much she tried to make things easier for me until after her death. She even picked out her cremation urn.

    • Donna Freedman

      My mom did the same, for both her and my stepdad: She wrote out insurance numbers, provided the prepaid burial plots info and even did obits. It was a practical and loving gesture, because we were pretty shattered when she died.

      • that is a really wonderful thing to do for your heirs.

        I’d put in a short version of the obit as well as a long one, if you can – I used to sell obituaries, and it is really wrenching for a loved one to cut an obituary for cost, if it was written by the person who died. Small town newspapers, and the online obituaries some funeral homes put up, are usually not priced by length, but city papers charge by the line – and even just for something printed to hand out at the funeral, two pages cost more than one.

  7. Just a reminder, guys, that some of that ‘stuff,’ when it’s donated, can be applied to your taxes. For items valued at $250, $500 or more, you’ll need a certified appraiser…someone like me (who’s been doing it since 1997), or one of my colleagues on the PAAQT website. (http://www.quiltappraisers.org) They all do quilts and textiles — and several, yours truly included, do general personal property appraising. Which basically means everything except houses and vehicles, in my case.
    Warning, though: you should have the appraisal done within 60 days before you actually plan to donate the items — otherwise, the appraiser has to make a special trip or do a second evaluation to certify that the items are in the same condition.
    Yes, it costs extra — but it’s worth it. And the appraisal itself is tax-deductible.
    (Donna, if you ever want a guest post on this subject, just ask — I’d be happy to write one.)

  8. lostAnnfound

    Our will, power of attorney and other legal paperwork was done just a few months after our second (and last) daughter was born. It was worth the couple hundred or so we spent to have all this done. The clutter is another issue. While we’re not as bad as we could be, we definitely need to get into the basement and the garage and start being ruthless. Most of this stuff is more of a burden than anything because all it has been doing is taking up space.

    My mom & dad are going through the decluttering of their house because they want to sell it this year. A 4 bedroom/2 bath home is just getting to big for them to keep up. My dad is a great saver of things (“you never know when you might need IT”), but he has been doing a great job getting rid of stuff, although they have only just begun.

    The one thing that my folks did do that I truly appreciated was getting all their paperwork in order a few years ago. When my dad finally retired about 8 years ago and they decided to spend winters in FL they gave me a list of ALL the things I needed to know “just in case”: Attorney’s name and number who did their will, bank accounts, safety deposit box location & key, funeral home where arrangements are (mostly) already taken care of, insurance companies & policy numbers for life & annuities, 401K plan, etc. Definitely something husband & I need to do for our kids!

  9. ooh, timely.
    My take on this is: if you are in a relationship, ensure you both know the basics of housekeeping and finance. Boyfriend’s dad died of a brain tumour late last year; we had to clear the paper clutter of a man who kept everything in order till the last few months. If we hadn’t cleared the contents of roughtly 40 box files, boyfriend’s Mum wouldn’t have known where to start. (Let’s not mention the 15 tape measures and the drawer full of tennis balls…)

  10. We had two elderly family members pass within several weeks of each other. We were responsible for cleaning their homes to get them ready for sale. Holding an estate sale was a huge undertaking for basically pennies. We also had problems with finding groups that were willing to accept donations and how to get them to the charity…we ended up renting trucks to get the stuff moved. So much of the stuff we couldn’t give away even for free. It broke our hearts to have to get 40yd dumpsters and just throw the stuff out! I wished these family members would have decluttered themselves but they were children of the Depression and saved everything in case they or their kids needed it. Tastes and styles have changed and we literally couldn’t give the stuff away!

  11. Truth in that!

    One of the biggest favors my father did for me after my mother died was to divest himself of virtually all his belongings and move himself into a life-care community. He never was much of a stuff-collector, but with that move he got rid of all the superfluous junk, keeping only what he needed.

    SDXB’s mother did something similar as she reached the point where she realized she soon would no longer be able to care for herself. She gave everything of any value to her kids and friends; the stuff she couldn’t get rid of got tossed or donated. When she moved to the old-folkerie, she was allowed to bring some of her furniture with her; the rest: tossed or donated. That left almost nothing for the family to have to cope with after she was gone.

    If you don’t use it, lose it!

  12. jestjack

    Donna, So sorry to hear DF’s Dad is failing….got to be tough. We lost DW’s folks within 6 months of each other about 2 years ago. The loss was bad BUT what was worse was probate and the arguments from syblings over possesions. Having witnessed this I have made every attempt to get my folks to make choices, put things in order and rid themselves of things…to no avail. It is frustrating and looks as though I will be left with the task after their passing. But I too hope to leave my estate…a little “more orderly” for the kids.

  13. I don’t have a huge amount of clutter but your article got me thinking of the large amount of stuff I do have and don’t actually need, mostly old papers/bills/records etc. I also have clothes I hardly ever wear. It wouldn’t do any harm to get rid of this clutter whatever the future holds.

    • Donna Freedman

      Agreed — especially if the stuff you don’t use/wear could benefit someone else.

  14. Shirley O’Reily

    LostANNfound, good for you for getting that paperwork in order early on. My mother and I sorted through everything of hers 7 months ago. She had her medical paperwork all over, she didn’t have any of her legal paperwork setup, and she was also a “you never know when you might need it” saver.

    Once she made the decision to sell her house and downsize is when she also decided to become more organized. She put all of her medical paperwork in labeled file folders, created her necessary legal forms, and got rid of all the unnecessary things. She used a power of attorney form from http://www.rocketlawyer.com/document/power-of-attorney.rl, and was able to get this all in order rather quickly. The process of cleaning and packing took way longer than expected, but she can happily say it’s done. She’s now living in a retirement home and has little to no worries.

    I’m happy to know that everything has been organized and completed before it was too late for her to help.

  15. My cousin and I spent several days sorting through all of my aunt’ household and personal items. My aunt moved into assisted living last fall. We had a garage sale a couple of weeks ago…..a garage sale in Minnesota in mid-March was not pleasant. It prompted me to do some purging of my own stuff. I carted three carloads to the thrift store. What a good feeling. I need to do another sweep through the house……..it still feels cluttered.

  16. A tale of two grandmothers … my father’s mother died in hospice, having already disposed of almost all her possessions and with a clear estate plan, records, and end-of-life directives in place.

    My mother’s mother died in a care facility, also with a good estate plan, decent records, and end-of-life directives, but with an amazing quantity of stuff still to be gone through. It has been a year; my uncle and his wife are STILL trying to sort and dispose.

    • Donna Freedman

      Yikes. They have my sympathies both for their bereavement and the formidable tasks of getting rid of all those things. Good cautionary tales in both cases, so thanks for sharing.

  17. So sorry to hear of DF’s father’s illness. We helped my husband’s folks move to Assisted Living a year before their deaths and one difficult aspect (related to stuff) was when they felt that something was precious or worth a lot of money and no one wanted it – or was willing to pay a lot for it. We kept some things in our basement until their deaths – but then had to dispose of them, or donate them. Whatever the circumstances, dealing with the loss of our parents is painful. A good medical history and organized documents is a kindness to those who are helping you, if you can manage it.


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