It has been a full year since my housemate's mother died.
The tide of her mail, bills, and boxes of personal papers and artwork has receded. It now takes up a small corner of the den instead of two banquet tables and my housemate has made progress on cleaning out her mother's house but there is still work to be done.
Things that have been helpful to her:
- Having a space at our house where she could keep an 'office' of her mother's paperwork. In the beginning there were a lot of different things to keep up on like medical billings, insurance, setting up an estate bank account, and having a place to put the mail as it came in. We ended up with two large plastic bins for junk mail, catalogs, and subscriptions-- since dealing with them wasn't time sensitive and a smaller inbox for bank statements, medical bills, and other potentially important and time critical mail. The nice thing about being able to use our den for this during the first year, was that my housemate could close the door and walk away. It wasn't piled up in her bedroom.
- Having me process junk mail in batches, including an hour spent on the phone telling catalog sales people to take her mother's name, and our address, off of their mailing list. Once I realized that telling folks straight up that the person they were trying to sell to had died, I found that they were all quick to take care of matters. One woman went so far as to offer to look up the name in other databases she had access to and she saved me 3 more phone calls as a result. It made me sad to have to repeat the same information over and over, but not nearly as sad as my housemate might have felt.
- Making a database of addresses from the collection of papers, cards, and old address books that we found during while looking for official paperwork like wills and car title.
- Being lucky enough that her mom's house was paid for. This allowed her to use it as a base of operations and only bring essential paperwork over to our house. It also has meant that she could take her time going through her mother's things at a pace that worked for her. It would have been much more stressful if she had had to go through things quickly.
- Hiring a lawyer who specialized in estate work to help her with the legal process of filing the correct forms with the county courthouse. The house is in another county from where we live and is a two-hour drive so having someone local was very helpful. It also didn't cost that much and everything was included in one upfront fee.
- Having weekend-long family work-parties at the house. There was an overwhelming amount of things to sort through and having a passel of folks there, that my housemate trusted got some big jobs done. My housemate's mother had been operating in survival mode for several years before she died (one of the many reasons she opted for the risks of surgery) so in addition to dealing with the belongings of a normal household, there were layers of projects that had been to be abandoned due to lack of energy that needed careful sorting through. One of the ways she coped with low energy was to have caches of items she would need near where she would use them. Things people helped with:
- Sorting tools in to broken, duplicates, and usable categories
- Rounding up caches of costume jewelry and putting sets back together
- Sorting, washing and packing clothes for donation Sorting perishable and non-perishable food and taking it to the local food bank along with unused personal products like soap and shampoo
- Cleaning out the potting shed and re-organizing it
- Finding the stashes of yard tools and consolidating them
- Gathering up office and art supplies and sorting them (many will be going to a local school)
- Dump runs and runs to the recycling center
- Rounding up potentially hazardous materials and prepping them to go to the county haz-mat facility
- Cleaning out the extra freezers and refrigerators on the property
- Leafing through books before sorting and packing them for distribution to family, friends, and local thrift stores.
- Assessing and make some minor repairs to fixtures in the house
Even with all the time spent on the estate so far, there is still a fair amount to do. Including following through with what we have learned and making sure our own estates are in order. One good thing that came out of this is the awareness of the complexity of dealing with even a simple estate and the steps we can all take to make life easier for those we leave behind.