What About My Memories?
I should start by pointing out two things- 1. This is not a “legal” matter per se, and 2. This may be more personal than you prefer your legal adviser to be. Either way, you’ve been warned.
As you know because you know me personally or you’ve read my About Me (if you haven’t, now’s a good time to pause and go do so), I lost my Father last year. There was a period of about a month where he was hospitalized, prior to his final check-out, where I spent a lot of time in he and my Mother’s home (picking items up, getting the mail, etc.). It was at this point I began to realize all the stuff my parents had accumulated. Now, Dad had been in the Air Force and had traveled the world. I can imagine several things he brought back from his adventures for my Grandma (he hadn’t met Mom yet). I can probably retell his stories too. Those items are wonderful and as far as I’m concerned, priceless. But the house has so much more than those treasures! If you’re an adult child, you probably know what I’m about to describe…
There’s the riding mower that didn’t run- but would one day, “when I get the time/parts to work on it”. Or the closets full of clothes that haven’t seen the light of day in who knows how many years. The 12-piece serving China? Or boxes of stuff that got moved from Texas to Florida, Florida to North Carolina, and then North Carolina back to Florida, without ever having been opened… My parents have accumulated STUFF. Now, don’t get me wrong, they are by no means slobs! I simply mean that like almost all of us, they managed to gather a lot in their lifetimes.
So, what does this have to do with Estate Planning or Elder Law? Well, a lot actually. You see, when Dad died, Mom came to live with my family, which means we have a house FULL of STUFF that has to be gone through and dealt with! This is a little known or discussed issue with death. I know, the legal issues are super important, but what kind of planner am I if I don’t provide as much information as possible? Going through a lifetime of stuff isn’t easy and it certainly shouldn’t be done quickly. This means family members will be required to dive into someone else’s life and try to determine what’s important, what’s not, and what they think the deceased person would want to have happen to any given item.
However, this is not just an issue when you lose a loved one. This is a common problem when a parent or older family member suddenly finds themselves needing care in an Assisted Living or Nursing Home facility as well. If the loved one is still capable of making their own decisions, you can of course include them in the downsizing process, but that brings up all new concerns.
These items, the ones that seem worthless to us, may be closely linked to their identities, their past, and their memories. This is sometimes easy to forget when you’re trying to scramble to get on top of failing health concerns, moving a parent or loved one into a facility, figuring out what to do with their house, and trying to manage your own life. So what’s the solution?
Emergencies will always present themselves and when they do, you just have to do your best. But if you’re in a position to start talking to your parents and loved ones now about downsizing, start gently. Suggest they go through their closet and donate unwanted items to a homeless shelter or community thrift store. This method gives them the opportunity to make their own decisions and feel like they aren’t just throwing their stuff away- it’s going to benefit the community and be used by people who need it.
Another suggestion is to “do your giving while you’re living”. Suggest they give important items and heirlooms to those they want to have them BEFORE they have to move or die. This will make it more meaningful to the recipient, who may learn things about the item they never knew, as well as making the eventual settlement of the estate easier (and avoiding potential legal battles and fights among the family members).
While you’re working with your loved ones, it’s not a bad idea to look at what you’d be leaving behind and start downsizing your own stuff. In fact, you could suggest a joint yard sale to help the whole family part with things no longer needed or serving a purpose.
I'm not saying this will be easy, but if you start early and treat your loved ones with respect, it's possible to avoid a problem before an emergency hits.