Dealing with the home of a family member who has died can be an overwhelming situation. In addition to the emotional aspects of grieving, there are legal probate and personal property issues that need to be resolved. During these times, you should embrace the offers of help from family members, friends, and experienced professionals. Working too fast without knowledgeable advice or putting off decisions can be costly in both emotional and financial well being. Home and personal property are far more complicated in today’s world than previously. Cleaning out a deceased relative’s house used to be easy with less furniture, electronic devices, and only a black landline phone from “Ma Bell.”

When I receive a call from the person who is handling the probate of their loved one’s estate, I always recommend a set of procedures to help them get through this difficult time.

The very first action you should take is to ensure that the house and property are not accessible to unauthorized persons. I recommend changing the locks immediately. Regularly, keys are in the custody of neighbors, cleaning people and service technicians and changing the locks is the best way to control access to the deceased person’s house. If there is a security alarm system, make sure it is activated and change the code.  Also, do a review of all the windows, sliding doors, and other entry points to make certain they are locked and secure. If you are not in the area, your estate attorney or your estate/probate Realtor specialist can coordinate these steps.

While the locks are being changed or even before the licensed and bonded locksmith arrives, start gathering the small valuables. This should be done by the authorized person established by the official documents. Please confirm with a probate attorney. Begin with the master bedroom or office and look for jewelry, cash, stamp collections, and anything else that could be easily pocketed by people that will be entering the house in the coming days. The best practice is to have another trusted person with you for verification. Catalog the items with descriptions and photos. If possible, place these items in a safe deposit box or a safe in a different premises. If there is a small unattached safe in the home and you do not have the combination, arrange to have that removed to another location as soon as possible.

Everybody Hides Valuables in Secret Places

There are countless stories about charity thrift shops receiving donated clothes and household items from families of deceased loved ones with money stashed in them. Most people hide jewelry and money in the most unlikely places. The sad fact is, they are the only people who know the location of the hiding place. Sometimes, even the elderly forget themselves.

Please take the time to go through all those hiding places and any other locations in the house. Start at one end of the house and systematically conduct a thorough search. It helps to do this in teams of two or three. Don’t forget the garage, outbuildings on the property, and any RVs, cars, boats, and other vehicles.

Clever places to check include:

  • Under the refrigerator or in an empty jar in the fridge.
  • Buried in a house plant.
  • The cover of the garage door mechanism.
  • The a/c vents in the home.
  • Behind the cover of the vacuum cleaner.
  • The toe kick panel beneath the cabinets.
  • Dummy PVC piping attached to a real pipe.
  • In an envelope taped to the bottom of a kitchen shelf.
  • In a watertight plastic jar in the toilet tank.
  • In an envelope at the bottom of a toy box.
  • In a container in the freezer.
  • Inside an old sock in a dresser.
  • In an empty pill bottle.
  • In a clothes pocket.
  • In an envelope taped to the underside of a drawer.
  • Taped behind a picture on the wall or between a photo and the frame.
  • In a hollowed-out book.
  • Inside a coffee or flour canister.

The goal is to have all valuable items safely secured and accurate records of the items.  The verified lists and photos are vital, especially when there are multiple beneficiaries.

Self Storage Units

Often overlooked are self-storage units. It is important to review check registers, credit card statements, and look for a payment to a storage facility. Then look through the keys around the house for padlock keys.

Here are the instructions from Inside Self Storage. Procedures may differ from state to state, and you will need to consult your estate attorney.

If a family member has the access code and keys to the unit (meaning he needs no action from the manager to enter the space), he can access the unit and, if warranted, remove the property from the rented space. This type of access is analogous to that for any rental property; a family member or friend who previously had access rights doesn’t immediately lose those rights when the tenant dies.

If the family member does not have authorized access, the facility manager can’t allow that person into the unit. To gain access, the family member must provide the manager with copies of the death certificate and a court order stating that the family member has been appointed as the administrator or executor of the estate. (This process can be quick or take up to 60 days.) Once he provides these documents, the family member can access the unit and decide if he wants to continue renting in the name of the tenant’s estate or terminate the rental agreement and remove the items. In either case, he must continue to pay rent on the unit to avoid foreclosure.

Steps to Stop Identity Theft and Add Data Security of the Deceased

According to the FBI Identity, theft is the nation’s fastest-growing crime. Here are ways that you can protect your loved one’s data:

While you are going through the house securing the valuables, keep a sharp lookout for checkbooks, statements, documents, and letters that may have account numbers, passwords or other personal identification.

If unsure where important documents are stored, check the likely places first, including safe deposit boxes, home safes, desk drawers, and filing cabinets.

Also, check:

  • Stationery drawer in the kitchen or buffet cupboard.
  • A basket on the counter that holds unpaid bills.
  • Wallets and purses.
  • Briefcase.
  • Coat, and jacket pockets.
  • Glove compartment of the car.

It is also a very good idea to remove cell phones, computers, Ipads, and other data storing items from the property. Aside from the value of the stolen hardware, the information stored in these devices can be used to access online accounts.

Remember, there will be service people, cleaning crews, and other people coming through the house in preparation for putting it on the market.

The next step is to have a certified appraiser come to the property to evaluate the larger art objects, paintings, silver pieces and collectables. I provide the service of an experienced professional at my expense to walk through the home and denote what should be kept by the family, what should be sold, what is desired by charities, and what should be hauled away. Everything in the kept and valuable classification should be removed from the property and stored in a safe place.

Have Arrangements Been Made for Pets?

Often times in all the confusion of a death, pets are overlooked. Arrangements need to be made for the pets to be cared for, either in the home or taken to a family member’s home. This will give you time to find a permanent solution. In my services as a Realtor specializing in estate sales, I have connections with numerous pet rescue and animal shelter organizations.

If the house will be vacant for several days, or if there are pets that need care, consider hiring a house sitter. They may be a volunteer, a trusted friend, or a paid professional.

A few more actions to take

Notify the local police or sheriff’s department that the home is vacant and to make certain they include the address in their patrols. Please give the authorities contact information.

  • Forward mail.
  • Cancel magazine and newspaper delivery.
  • Take care of garbage and recycling.
  • Install timers on selective interior lights.
  • Arrange for lawn care or snow removal.

Keep the electric, water, a/c or heat on to maintain the quality of the property. This is very important while selling the house.

More Identity Theft and Data Security Actions

Obituaries and Published Death Notices

As terrible as this may seem, these notices contain an immense amount of information. Names, dates of births, family trees, and addresses. How many times have you been asked to provide your mother’s maiden name for proof of identity? Keep these notices short.

Credit Reporting

Immediately notify the major credit reporting bureaus that your family member has passed away. Request that the credit report is flagged with the note: ‘Deceased, Do Not Issue Credit.’ Obtain a copy of the deceased’s credit report so that you will have a list of all of the accounts you need to close.

TransUnion – 800-680-7289
Experian – 888-397-3742
Equifax – 888-766-0008.

It’s always a good idea to keep notes of conversations, and if you send anything by mail, certify the letters.  

Do the same with all banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, stockbrokers, mortgage companies. Also, Social Security, VA, and the DMV.

Email and Social Media after Death

According to ABC News, over 85% of people in the United States are online. The use of email services like Google Gmail, Yahoo mail, Aol, and iCloud are just a few of the top email providers. With social media and networking apps like Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Linkedin, the average person has a very large internet presence with 25 different accounts.

When a family member dies, it is important to control and manage these accounts, not just for security and identity theft concerns, but also to maintain the reputation of your loved one. Once the deceased’s home and digital properties have been secured, it has become customary to use their accounts to post a memorial notice on the social networking sites.

Here are the major links to help you manage this process:

Email

Social Networking

You may want to consider taking control of your own web presence with one of these services.

Once you feel comfortable that these and the actions the attorney handling the estate have given you are complete, you can now start interviewing Realtors for selling the property. Ask your attorney for their recommendation of an experienced real estate agent that specializes in probate and estate property sales.

You will be able to move through the process with confidence and assuredness of making the right choices and respecting the loved one’s wishes.

Rande Friedman is a licensed Realtor in Tampa, Florida. With over a decade of probate experience in helping families sell the estate of their loved ones, Rande believes in the highest standards of service. As a member of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, he is continuously expanding his knowledge in the field of probate and estate sales.

“When a probate, estate, or trust calls for the sale of real property, it is crucial to use an experienced real estate professional. I have worked with trustees, beneficiaries and probate professionals throughout the years, and I understand the stress involved with these types of sales.

I strive to create a climate of transparent communication, building trusting relationships between all the involved parties. I’m able to provide straightforward explanations in non-technical terms to accountants, trustees, administrators, conservators, and, of course you; the Seller.

My main goal is to get the best possible price and terms for beneficiaries while keeping their best interest in mind in all negotiations throughout the transaction.”