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What happens to personal possessions when someone dies?

Jun 23, 2023 | Uncategorised

When somebody dies, their money, property and personal belongings have to be dealt with. In legal parlance, these assets are the “estate” and the person who deals with it is either the “executor” or the “administrator”.

The estate is usually passed on to family and friends. Sometimes people will specify charities or other organisations that they want to donate to.

But the question of what happens to smaller items isn’t entirely clear. There’s no legal framework for disposing of items that aren’t listed in the will. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to conflict.

In this article, we look at the basics of splitting a deceased person’s estate and then some of the issues surrounding the division of their personal belongings.

Who is the executor or administrator?

If the deceased left a valid will, they will have specified who’s responsible for dealing with it. This person becomes the “executor”. Their role is to locate the assets, pay off any outstanding taxes or debts and distribute money, possessions and property in line with the will.

If the estate is worth more than £5,000, the executor needs to get the court’s permission to proceed. This is called “grant of probate” – or “confirmation of the estate” in Scotland.

As well as the will, the deceased may have left a “letter of wishes” – essentially a letter containing written instructions about how they’d like their assets to be split.

The first port of call, then, is to establish whether a will and letter of wishes exist.

If the person died intestate – without a valid will, or with no will at all – then the person who deals with the estate is the “administrator”.

A close relative like a spouse, child or parent will usually have the right to sort out the estate – but they have to apply for a grant of “letters of administration” rather than a grant of probate. In Scotland, this is called an “executor dative”.

However, if the estate is valued at less than £10,000 and doesn’t include land, property or shares, it can be possible to sort it out without a grant.

What happens to smaller items?

A person’s estate is usually relatively simple to sort out – although disputes can arise.

A more emotive issue is what to do with smaller items that have sentimental value but weren’t listed in the will – things like furniture, jewellery, musical instruments, pictures and the like.

In law, these are called “fittings” or “chattels”. But the law doesn’t say how they should be divided if they haven’t been named in the will specifically.

Wills can contain “specific legacies” – for instance, cousin Sue will get the fine bone china tea set. This overrides any promises made to other friends or relatives outside of the will.

But although there’s not a legal framework for dividing or disposing of chattels, there are a few things that can be advisable.

How to deal with personal possessions that aren’t specified in the will

When somebody dies, there’s a lot to do. The death has to be registered, the funeral organised, the will located and the house secured and cleaned.

It’s only when these things have been done that you really need to turn your attention to personal belongings.

Beneficiaries of the will should be dealt with first. Personal items then need to be gone through, listed and divided or disposed of.

This will almost certainly be a stressful time for the executor. It can therefore be advisable to approach the task of dealing with personal possessions methodically.

To make the task less overwhelming, it can be useful to divide personal belongings into categories: for instance, “keep”, “recycle”, “donate” and “throw away”.

Sometimes you won’t be sure which category an item fits into – so you could think about having a box for items like this.

The temptation can be to keep everything – but this isn’t always practical. One way to deal with a large number of photos and videos, for example, would be to make copies and dispose of the originals.

Most people accrue a lot of paperwork in their lives. While some documents should be kept hold of – house deeds, financial documents and birth certificates, for instance – the rest can be shredded or disposed of.

If the deceased person was a collector, you might feel obliged to keep the whole collection. Again, this won’t always be practical. If you have the resources, it can be useful to get a professional to appraise the collection and help you decide what to keep.

Finally, you will have a consider a person’s “digital legacy” – their social media accounts. You may want to shut them down or clear them.

What to do in the case of disagreement

The process of sifting through and itemising a person’s belongings can be stressful – and when you come to distribute them among family members, you may encounter difficulties, especially if relations are already strained.

There are no legal guidelines for this. One tactic could be to get each possible beneficiary to list a certain number of items that they want in order of priority, and proceed from there. Another is to allocate an imaginary budget to each person and then “sell” items up to that value.

If things can’t be resolved, your remaining option is to sell everything. If you don’t want to do that for whatever reason, the people involved can seek independent legal advice.

Next steps

Dealing with a loved one’s will and personal belongings after their death can be emotive and stressful. For this reason, it can be advisable to get impartial legal help. That way, cool heads can prevail and reduce the chance of conflict.

Are you looking for legal guidance related to wills, trusts or probate? At Milners Law, we have teams of experienced and tactful probate solicitors in Leeds, Harrogate and Pontefract. Get in touch today for a free consultation.

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