A guide to sorting through personal belongings after death

A guide to sorting through personal belongings after death
Losing a loved one is nearly always painful. Grief affects everybody in different ways, and alongside sadness, you may feel anger or resentment, or just numb. If they died after an illness, you may even feel relief that they’re no longer suffering - and then feel guilty because of that relief.

After the initial flurry of activity after a loved one has passed - sorting the funeral directors and arranging the death certificate - our emotions tend to come to the fore. That’s also usually the time when their personal effects need to be dealt with, and sorting through personal belongings after a death can bring back a lot of memories that then exacerbate or trigger grief.

At a time when you’re not in any position to be able to make rational decisions, it can be very difficult to know what to do with your loved one’s personal possessions after they’ve died. It may help you to know, legally, what happens to someone’s personal belongings when they die, and learn what options are available at this difficult time.

Who can deal with personal belongings after a death?

If your loved one has left a Will, they will have named Executors who are the people who’ll be responsible for selling what needs selling and keeping what needs keeping. Executors are usually close family members - you might be an Executor, even if you’re also a beneficiary (someone who will receive all or part of the estate). 

Executors may need to apply for probate to do this, though it’s not always necessary. They are then responsible for distributing the deceased person’s ‘estate’ (which includes money, property and personal possessions) in accordance with the Will. There might also be a ‘letter of wishes’, which is a letter written by your loved one and usually kept with the Will, which would set out particular instructions about who should receive which personal items. 

More often, there is nothing specific in the Will about what should happen to personal belongings, and there is nothing in the law that has set rules about this, either. Instead, the monetary value of any major personal possessions would be taken into account for Inheritance Tax purposes, and for the fair division of the estate.

If there was no Will, then the closest living relative will need to apply to administer the estate in accordance with the rules of intestacy. 

What happens to someone’s belongings when they die depends on what it says in the Will, or what the Executor or Administrator decides to do to ensure that the estate is divided properly. 

How are personal belongings dealt with after death?

The first step to take is to secure the house, and get rid of anything perishable that might cause damage to the property or personal possessions. Then the issue of what to do with personal belongings can be dealt with over the coming weeks.

As a broad rule of thumb, personal belongings can be kept as they are and distributed to the beneficiaries in accordance with their value, or sold and the money raised divided per the Will or rules of intestacy. If there’s no value to them (sentimental or significant monetary), they can be given to charity or thrown away. 

Let’s say the estate has to be divided equally between you and your sister. The Will itself or any letter of wishes might say that you are to receive certain items of jewellery and your sister is to receive certain items of artwork, for example. Then, the Executor/Administrator might let you both choose certain items of sentimental value (Christmas decorations, photos, items of clothing, things like that). These are difficult to place a monetary value on, but should be roughly equal in value or nature. 

Everything else would then need to be sold, donated, recycled or included as part of a house clearance. 

How does house clearance work?

Some people find it just too difficult to sort through or dispose of a loved one’s personal belongings. If that’s the case for you, you could hire a house clearance company to remove some or all of the household contents.

If there are a lot of items in the house that could be sold profitably, then the house clearance company might pay you to allow them to take everything away and sell it on their own terms. You’d be very unlikely to be offered the true value of each item, as the company will seek to make a profit for themselves. 

If there are a lot of items that would need to be disposed of, the house clearance company would charge you to do so. 

The house clearance company would need to come and assess the contents as a whole before telling you whether they would pay you, or if you would need to pay them, to clear the property for you.

Selling personal belongings privately

This may be more profitable but may also be harder, emotionally, as you’ll need to go through each item and decide its worth - and perhaps have to haggle with buyers over its value. 

If there are items of particularly high value, you should get these appraised and, if appropriate, they could be sent to auction to achieve the highest price.

You could also donate items to your loved one’s preferred charity, if they are in good condition, and many charities will arrange collection for larger items of furniture.

If the house needs to be sold and a buyer is found before all of the furniture and other belongings have been dealt with, you could rent a self storage unit to keep the personal belongings safe until they can be distributed or sold. Items of particular sentimental value would need to be distributed beforehand, in case the worst should happen and they’re damaged or lost, as the true value of these cannot be measured or insured.

Other personal belongings

Items like photographs can cause tension because of their sentimental value. Consider making digital copies and sharing them to anyone who wants them. 

Overall, it’s important not to make any hasty decisions after the death of a loved one. There is no massive rush to get everything sorted and distributed, even if the house has to be sold (or, in the case of a rented property, the rental period comes to an end). You can store the household contents until you’re ready to face selling or donating them (if you’re an Executor), and you may achieve more money by doing this than you would via a house clearance company. 

Take things one step at a time, and do what you can on any given day - some days will be easier than others. Take photos of any items you decide to sell or donate, or of each room of the house before everything is moved, so that you’ll feel as though you’ve still got a way to remember the things that were important to your loved one. 


If you're finding it all too much and not quite ready to dispose of your loved ones possessions, do get in touch as we'd be happy to look after you belongings while you decide what you are going to do.  Hopefully, taking the pressure off and giving you the breathing space you need.  We have over 125 storage facilities nationwide so we're bound to have one near you.


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