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What To Keep (or Not) of Your Loved One’s Things


Seeing their belongings – their bedroom slippers, a well-loved childhood toy, or a favorite book on the nightstand – is almost too much to bear when someone we love dies. We’ve developed a strategy to help make this task a little easier.

Whether it is a few items or a house full of memories, going through a loved one’s belongings after their death is daunting. You’re reminded of the life you shared, both happy and unhappy. If your loved one passed unexpectedly or did not leave explicit instructions, deciding what to do with their things can quickly become contentious when family members disagree. 

Here are seven suggestions to help you from feeling overwhelmed when it’s time to decide what to do with a loved one’s belongings. 

Tip #1: Take Your Time

According to Psychology Today, there is no time frame for going through your loved one’s belongings. Even if you are against a hard deadline, such as a house closing or the end of a rental lease, you should still take as much time as you need. 

You might have to find temporary storage, but don’t allow yourself to be rushed. Hurrying through the task can make it even more emotionally challenging. You also want to avoid having regrets about giving away or throwing out something you wished you’d kept. 

Tip #2: Ask for Help

The closer you are to the person, the more difficult it will be to go through their belongings. Ask a friend or family member to help you. Sorting through your loved one’s belongings will be emotional. Having someone there to talk about what to keep and give away is helpful. 

You should ask family members if there are certain items they want. However, valuable items (jewelry, antiques, and artwork) should be appraised, particularly if more than one person wants them. Depending on your loved one’s will, an appraisal from a reputable third party might be a legal requirement before disbursement.

Tip #3: Take Breaks 

Seeing and touching your loved one’s belongings while grieving can bring closure. It can also make your loss feel as raw and new as the time of their passing. 

You don’t have to start sorting at the break of dawn and go all day. Take breaks when you need them. If an hour or two is all you can manage in a day, that’s still progress. 

Tip #4: Start Small 

If you are sorting through a loved one’s home, you might want to start with one closet, one bureau, or one section of a room at a time. Begin with the basement or attic with boxes that haven’t been opened in years. Starting small and with things that you’re less likely to feel emotional about is more manageable. 

Tip #5: ‘Not Sure’ Is Acceptable

Decluttering experts recommend having storage bins, boxes, or large plastic bags with labels. We recommend using labels that read: Keep, Donate, Discard, and Not Sure. It is perfectly acceptable for you not to know whether you want to donate items at that moment. 

Tip #6: Keep Important Documents Separate

To avoid legal or financial hassles down the line, plan on keeping the following documents until you speak to the executor or an attorney:

Tax Forms and Supporting Documentation 

Keep your loved one’s income tax returns and related records (W-2s, business receipts, etc.) for at least three years. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) obviously cannot audit a dead taxpayer, but they can come after family members and beneficiaries of the estate. 

Business and Financial Documents

Keep bank statements and other financial documents separate until your loved one’s estate is settled. Once you have the go-ahead to close bank accounts, shred any remaining checks or potentially sensitive papers. 

Insurance Policies and Investment Documents

If your loved one had a life insurance policy, ask the issuing agent about filing a claim. Keep all paperwork related to annuities, stocks, bonds, pensions, and other investments.

Utility and Home Bills

You might need to switch utilities to your name only or close the account if you sell or lease your loved one’s home. These account numbers will come in handy either way. 

Social Security Cards and Passports

Keep your loved one’s social security card, passport, and other forms of identification. Some financial institutions or government agencies might need them to settle the estate.

Military Discharge Papers and Commendations

If your loved one was a veteran, keep their discharge papers and any record of commendations, medals, or honors. Most honorably discharged veterans are entitled to burial benefits, including burial or interment in a national veteran’s cemetery.

Tip #7: Create a Small, Meaningful Collection

You can only keep some things. When you feel comfortable deciding what to keep, donate, or discard, focus on the items that remind you of your loved one. They are only objects. Your emotional connection to your loved person brings happiness, not the items themselves.

Closing Thoughts

Sorting through your loved one’s belongings is no easy task. Try not to fall into a cycle of regret or remorse. Your loved one would want you to move on and be happy, not spend time feeling guilty about donating their jelly jar collection or throwing away old magazines.

Cremation doesn’t mean you give up permanent memorialization options. Having a special place to remember and reflect is comforting for you and future family members. Many cemeteries offer affordable, respectful memorials, including cremation gardens, traditional burial plots, vaults, or mausoleums. There are also no-cost burials or interment at national veterans' cemeteries if your loved one is a qualifying veteran.