Don’t Throw Away Everything; Give Yourself Goals

Question: My father recently passed away, and I am trying to sort through his paperwork and things. I don’t know what to keep and what to get rid of. Can you help me figure out what I need and what I don’t?

Answer: I often talk about this issue to clients and friends, so you are not alone in your situation. I am sorry for your loss. The death of a loved one is always hard. Then you have to face the personal possessions and sorting through them, which can seem overwhelming.

Let me say this sorting process can be a healing process. It allows you the opportunity to relive memories and events from the past. It also can cause stress because you may have a timeline you need to meet.

If your father had an apartment, you sometimes need to empty it before the end of the month or 30 days after the death. So you don’t have a lot of time. But you don’t have as much ‘stuff’ in an apartment as you would in a home.

My first piece of advice is “Don’t throw everything away.” You never know what you may need later. My next piece of advice is to give yourself reasonable goals. Don’t expect to empty the house/apartment in a week. It will take time. You may need to ask for help from friends and family. You may even need to hire someone to do part of it.

As you begin this process, try to think it through a little bit. Organize the process as best you can. Categorize areas into levels of priority, maybe tackle the food first, or the paperwork first.

Then set up areas to put things. What I mean by this is consider getting a dumpster or large trash bin. So everything that is being thrown away goes directly into that. Do not use black plastic bags for things that are to be donated or kept. Black bags are for trash only. Buy clear plastic bags for things that are to be donated, that way you can see what is in the bag and get it to the correct place. Remember to set aside recyclable items separate from the trash.

When sorting, try to set up separate areas as I mentioned earlier — maybe one side of a room for donations and one side for a sale. If possible, set up separate rooms, which will prevent you from sorting items over and over because the piles get mixed together.

There are many charities locally that will take a lot of what you are getting rid of. Some will even come pick it up. Each family has its favorite charity. You choose the one that is right for you, call them and see what their policies are about taking items. Do charities want furniture, clothes, personal items, and food? What are their policies about drop off times and where do you drop off? Do they pick up?

Some families want to have a sale to dispose of all those items. That is up to you. There are many local individuals and businesses who do this type of thing. Each has their own organizational style and business practices. Call a couple of them and see what you think. They may want to come to the house/apartment to look around. If you are going to go this route, be sure to get the items that you and your family want to keep out first, or label them accordingly. You don’t want to find out later that someone wanted that rocking chair after it is already sold.

The individuals who run these businesses can be very helpful with ideas and opportunities to help with this sorting process. Some of them can come and take everything away so the house or apartment is emptied quickly. Some like to have the sale at that location, which may or may not be possible.

Now let’s get back to what I advise about the paperwork end of it. This is actually my favorite part. I am definitely a paper person. Paperwork should be sorted before disposing of it. I never recommend throwing out everything. There are many things you will have to do in the coming months and possibly years. You don’t want to get rid of something you will need later and may not be able to replace. If you need to empty the apartment in a hurry, pack up all the paperwork and take it with you to sort when you have more time, or work on it in sections.

Legal documents like wills, birth certificates, marriage certificates, deeds, and military papers should be kept forever. I know that your parents have passed away, but you may need these at some time in your life. Ideally store these documents in a fire rated storage lock box. Life Insurance papers are something you should look for. Not everyone has Life Insurance, and sometimes family members hava no idea about policies that are out there. So as you sort through paperwork, look for these items. If you find something that you aren’t sure is still in force, like life insurance policies, call the company and see what you can find out. I have run into more than one family who found out about Life Insurance Policies they didn’t know existed, which makes this process of sorting out worthwhile.

Also consider whether you will need those financial documents to file this year’s income tax return. If your father was alive in 2019 you may be required to file a tax return on his behalf. Some people do not make enough to be required to file an income tax return, but I would plan on doing one just in case. You could ask a tax preparer for further advice on this one. You also should keep at least seven years of tax returns. I would also suggest here that you get some sort of tote or file cabinet to put these in, so you know where they are.

As you sort through items, you may want to consider getting a shredding bin. There are a number of companies in our area that will provide you with a shredding container that you can fill up with things that need to be shredded. These companies charge you for each time they come to pick it up/empty it. If you box it up, and then think later you will have time to shred it, that just adds more work to your pile. Giving your 6-year-old the job of shredding is not really a good idea either, shredders can be dangerous.

As you think about what needs to be shredded, consider the information on the paper. If it just their name, and address, it doesn’t need to be shredded. If it is their medical or billing information, I recommend shredding it. Although don’t shred the current year’s medical-related paperwork. Keep two years of medical paperwork). As the next year progresses, you will continue to get medical Explanation of Benefits (EOBs) and medical bills. You will need these to review and pay the providers.

If it is bank statements, you can shred the older ones, but keep at least a few years. That way if you need to know where they banked for any reason, you have that. If you shred everything from the bank as soon as the account is closed, you don’t have any record of what bank and how much and the account numbers. You should leave the account open as long as there are bills to pay, and check to cancel any automatic withdrawals or deposits that are being made.

As you are sorting these documents, it gives you an opportunity to find things you may not have known about. I talked earlier about life insurance policies, but you also may find additional investments, bank accounts, etc. Very few of us know everything about our parent’s financial and medical lives. So keep your eyes open for information that you may not be aware of.

I also have run into many individuals over the years that ‘hide’ money in the oddest places. So don’t toss out everything without looking through it. Shake out books; there may be pictures, money or mementoes in between those pages. I have so many odd things that have been found in coat pockets, zippered sections of old purses, tucked into socks, so many odd places.

Also be sure to contact those income sources that your parents had including social security, pensions, annuities, 401ks and the like. Social security will stop the month your parent died, but sometimes those other income sources, transfer onto a designated beneficiary. You will have to provide proof of death (death certificate) and maybe complete some other paperwork, but there may be continued income to that beneficiary for a period of time. This is another good reason to sort out those papers before getting rid of everything. And you will need to cancel health insurance policies or other services, such as Lifeline, that your parent may have been using.

I will say again, I am sorry for your loss. Reach out to others for help and support during this process. I hope this information helps you cope with some of what you are going through.

To contact Janell Sluga, GCMC with questions or concerns, please call 720-9797 or e-mail her at janells@lutheran-jamestown.org.


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