Help me help them now that she's passed on
August 12, 2009 9:41 AM   Subscribe

My grandmother died this morning. I'm going home to help out the family, but I would like to make a list of things I might not remember before I leave so that we don't forget anything.

This is the third death in my family since March, and unfortunately, my dad and aunt are overwhelmed right now so I've offered to take some time off to go home and help.

Dad is dealing with my baby sister's wedding at the beginning of next month and my aunt has health and family issues of her own, so I have been asked to go home and help pack up and disseminate things like clothing, shoes, purses, etc. while my aunt figures out what to do with furniture and financial assets. I'm the only one in the family without small children who lives nearby that can help out, I'm just inexperienced with things like this and want to make sure I cover as much as I can while I'm there.

We have to prepare the home for sale now that both grandparents have died. I wanted to make a checklist before I went of things to do, like:

1. Call all her doctors, dentist, hairdresser and nail person and cancel upcoming appointments.

2. Get copies of the death certificate and mail to all utilities with a written request to terminate services.

3. Take plants/flowers left over from the funeral and donate them to the local hospitals and hospices (I can do this, right?).

4. Should I shred things like paid bills, unused checks, deposit slips, that sort of thing? I have a small shredder I can take with me.

5. How do I cancel her mail if she's deceased? Should I put in a forwarding address to my dad or aunt's address and let one of them deal with cards or random mail that trickles in after the bills are taken care of?

6. The house is already in my aunt's name, so putting the house up for sale should not be a problem, nor should the taxes, etc. is there anything I might not know about regarding that which I could pass on to my aunt (i.e., you've sold a home after a death and something was different/odd about it vs. a regular home sale)?

7. Photos. I've been tasked with taking hundreds of older photos and creating a digital archive so that family members can access, save and print copies if they so choose. Any suggestions on software? Paid services that would make this easier than me scanning them in myself? Picasa vs. Flickr? Etc.

8. Online memorial page. My grandfather has one through the WWII memorial service; can I create one for her online, too? It would be nice to have a URL I can point people to that cannot attend the service this weekend and where I could post photos and information about her. Does such a site/service exist? Have you used it, and did you like it?

Any suggestions from those of you who have had to box up and dissolve another person's life, thank you in advance. I've read old threads like this and this and they were helpful, I'm trying to think of the post-memorial service stuff that people assume others are taking care of so I can take care of it myself this time.

I'm sure my grandmother had a will; I'm not worried about legal stuff, dividing assets, that sort of thing. I'm thinking of the more banal stuff that you don't realize you need to do after you've planned the service and had the funeral. Thanks, everyone.
posted by Unicorn on the cob to Human Relations (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Someone in the will is named as the trustee, that is the person that will have the legal right and responsibility to dispose of or distribute property. The will probably designates who gets what, or if property is to be sold and the proceeds distributed.

Before you do anything that involves the exchange/disposal of property, belongings, cash, assets of any the will...

and...hang in there... this is not a quick process...
posted by HuronBob at 9:54 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: insurance companies will want copies of the death certificate as well. make many copies so you've got a spare or two as things come up.

postal mail:
posted by rmd1023 at 10:01 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Someone (likely the executor) will need to file taxes for her in 2010 (for the portion of 2009 that she was alive). So I would not shred anything until that course of action has been determined.

It may be that you grandmother's will was very simple, but your family should talk to an attorney first. My bf's dad died in January, and we thought his will was pretty straightforward, but there have been lots of complications that could have impacted my bf severely in terms of taxes had they not been handled correctly.

And unless the plants and flowers look different than the arrangements I've see at previous funerals, they may be a bit too "funereal" to pass along. Especially to those particular groups you mentions.
posted by kimdog at 10:01 AM on August 12, 2009

also, my condolences on your losses. it sounds like it's been a hell of a year. hang in there.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:03 AM on August 12, 2009

In my area, you can just call and cancel utilities. You have to be prepared to pay any balances but I don't believe that you need to go to the trouble of mailing of copies of the death certificate and writing a request. Just trying to save you some steps. Very sorry for your loss and I know your family appreciates you taking charge.
posted by pearlybob at 10:07 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: If your grandmother had an address book or phone list, you could use that to notify her friends. When my parents died it took a couple of days of phone calls to let people know (we didn't like to leave messages, better to talk to the person direct.)

As HuronBob says, it can be quite a drawn-out process - a notebook is handy.
posted by anadem at 10:09 AM on August 12, 2009

Seconding don't shred everything. Organize and file all the papers. Once the estate has been settled for a significant about of time (ask a lawyer in your state how long), you can then dispose of the paperwork.

Good luck with everything.
posted by Citrus at 10:21 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: My sincere condolences to you on the loss of your grandmother. You are right that it can be a very trying time, and kudos to you for trying to anticipate all of the things that will need to be done.

Utilities: You will not want to cancel all the utilities, nor would you need a death certificate to do so. When a house is up for sale, it will definitely need electricity, heat, etc. Cable television and telephone service, of course, are not needed. People cancel these services all the time, for various reasons, so a death certificate is irrelevant (unless it's needed to exit from long-term contracts she may have entered into).

In the case of the house, think of it in terms of what's involved in putting it up for sale. At the risk of sounding harsh (which I most certainly do not mean to do), your grandmother's death is incidental to the sale of the house.

Mail: It's probably a good idea for your grandmother's mail to be forwarded to your aunt, assuming she is the executor of the estate. Some bills and other things an executor will need to handle will undoubtedly drift in over the next months or so. If your aunt receives her mail, it will also give her an opportunity to cancel any subscriptions or catalogs she may have been getting.

Online memorial page: When my dad passed away last year, the death notices in the newspapers (note: these are up to the survivors to submit, and pay for) included links to an online condolence book. You might verify that when you place the death notice, but they will probably take care of setting up the memorial page for you as part of their service.

Shredding: In all likelihood, your grandmother kept far more old and potentially identifying paperwork than is needed. By all means, take your shredder with you and use it for anything that shows her social security number. Remember that until not many years ago, mutual fund statements routinely listed your social security number.
posted by DrGail at 10:23 AM on August 12, 2009

I'm sorry for your loss.

While you're going through all of this, please take time for yourself. While you may not have children to care for or weddings to plan, you're still going to need to take time to step away from taking care of your grandmother's things.

I can address the photo scanning itself. It's very time consuming to do on your own; if there are indeed hundreds of photos, I'd send them to a photo scanning service. I used to work for one and would recommend them to anyone considering taking this route. If you'd like the company's name, please feel free to MeMail me.
posted by Aleen at 10:27 AM on August 12, 2009

If you're going to have the house on the market, I'd avoid canceling essential utilities such as electricity and heat (gas, oil, whatever), since the realtor will want to be able to at least turn on the lights. And in the current market, you might not sell the house until the spring. See if you can transfer them into the name of the executor instead. Some utilities are a PITA to deal with--Charter wanted to see (not keep) a copy of the death certificate before they would cancel service. Others are fine.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:33 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: "2. Get copies of the death certificate and mail to all utilities with a written request to terminate services."

Don't cancel power, gas or water until the house is sold. It's pretty hard to show a house whose lights don't turn on, gas will be needed (along with power) for heat in the winter, electricity will be needed for A/C if the house is in a humid area. While you could get away with shutting off the power it makes home inspections harder (and the inspector may think you are trying to hide something) and you still need to keep your assorted P-Traps filled so sewer gas doesn't back up into the house. The easiest way to do that is with water run into them every couple of weeks. You'll also need water for the lawn/garden/flowers and for cleaning.

Besides it'll be a bit of a disaster the second time a prospective buyer uses the toilet.

However no need to run these things full blast. Turn the hot water tank down to the minimum setting, A/C to 85-90, heat to 60. Turn off the fridge. Use a timer for a light or two.

"How do I cancel her mail if she's deceased? Should I put in a forwarding address to my dad or aunt's address and let one of them deal with cards or random mail that trickles in after the bills are taken care of?"

Better to get it forwarded to the executor of the will.
posted by Mitheral at 10:36 AM on August 12, 2009

I can address the photo scanning itself. It's very time consuming to do on your own; if there are indeed hundreds of photos, I'd send them to a photo scanning service. I used to work for one and would recommend them to anyone considering taking this route.

Seconding this. When my father passed away unexpectedly this spring, we needed digital versions of photos for a memorial slideshow, etc., and none of us had the emotional wherewithal or time to do it ourselves. The photo scanning service made it seamless.

I'm so sorry for your loss. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by all these details, especially when you haven't handled a similar situation before and you're grieving. Please don't hesitate to ask friends and loved ones for help if and when you need to, okay?
posted by teamparka at 10:39 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: A couple things not yet mentioned that may or may not need taking care of: return library books/cancel her card; cancel her ISP if she has one; cancel newspaper delivery and (probably less importantly) magazine subscriptions. Also, many frequent flyer programs offer "courtesy" transfers in case of death, so especially if she has a lot of miles, you should try to transfer those. Also, you may need to get the contents of the home appraised, and this is a pretty easy thing to set up, though costs $ which should be charged to the estate, so don't arrange anything until you understand the will and check in with the executor.

Many condolences to you and your family, and good for you for being willing to step in.
posted by gubenuj at 10:51 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: My mother died a year ago. When I look back at it now from some distance, the thing that strikes me the hardest is that I wish I hadn't moved so fast. I tend to react to stress and grief by acting out - any action at all seems better than inaction - and now, in retrospect, I really, really wish I had taken some time just to absorb everything before I started madly throwing things into boxes and trash cans. There's stuff that I got rid of that I wish I had and stuff in the garage that I have no IDEA why I kept. So my first recommendation is that if it is at all possible, to take a little time to reflect before you do anything. Also, do not shred or toss ANY paperwork that's less than a year old or really, make it two years to be safe. You don't know what you might yet need for the estate and taxes and stuff. That said, here are a few things to consider, in kind of random order.

1. You're going to need a lot of boxes and big trash bags. Get those first.

2. Clothes are probably the easiest things to get rid of although they're also sort of the most emotionally wrenching - I did them first. I asked a couple of my close friends to come over and we went through my mother's closet and bureaus together, which really, really helped. We set up areas - one for Goodwill, one for consignment and one for each of us with things to keep - my mother had some great clothes and fantastic vintage shoes which were too small for me but fit two of my friends. Working together makes it go quicker.

3. You need to post a legal notice in the local paper of record that she died - this is not the obituary but something else, like a classified ad, that says that her estate will be closed in a year. Ask the lawyer about it; they have the right text. It's important to do it quickly because it serves as a notice to creditors that they have a limited time frame to hit up the estate for debts.

4. As far as mail, go down to the post office and ask. They have a form for you to fill out as I recall and it gives you the choice of whether you want mail forwarded or just returned. We went with returned and I think we probably should have gone with forwarded.

5. Auction houses are the best way to get rid of furniture and stuff. Ask around for a reputable one in your area - they'll come in and pretty much take everything. They'll come fast and work fast, too, so BEFORE you call them, figure out what stuff you want or other people might want - photos, keepsakes, jewelry, lamps - because once the auction people have come, it's all gone, baby, gone, forever.

I know there's more but this is all I can think of offhand. I'm so sorry for your year of loss - it sucks donkey balls in hell, I know, but it does eventually pass and you will get through it.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:55 AM on August 12, 2009

Response by poster: mygothlaundry: 5. Auction houses are the best way to get rid of furniture and stuff. Ask around for a reputable one in your area - they'll come in and pretty much take everything. They'll come fast and work fast, too, so BEFORE you call them, figure out what stuff you want or other people might want - photos, keepsakes, jewelry, lamps - because once the auction people have come, it's all gone, baby, gone, forever.

Thanks so much for that, mgl. I just remembered a friend's parents run an estate sale service. I might contact them or let my aunt do it, but I'd feel better having not-strangers help with some things that include those difficult decisions.

Great suggestions and advice from everybody so far; please, keep em coming.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:09 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: In terms of sorting out her belongings, think carefully about what you keep and what you throw away. In terms of clothing, there will be stuff that is clearly throw away, clearly donate, but many older people have clothing items (particularly handbags) that are quite valuable on the secondary market. In settling a relative's estate, my mom ended up selling two 1950's handbags for upwards of $5000 each (on eBay). Keep your eyes open for well known labels and also for things that just "look interesting". It can be useful to make a "research this" pile or box and check going rates on eBay for certain things. Older toys can also have a good deal of value.

Also, its possible that certain nondescript items will have a good deal of sentimental value for your father and/or aunt (or your sibling(s)). If they can get away for just an afternoon, have each of them do a walk-through of the house and put sticky labels (colored dots from the office store are fine) on things they want to keep. They may say they don't want to keep anything, but in my experience (my grandfather was an auctioneer for many years) there are often small items (such as dishes that were used when they were children) that don't immediately spring to mind but that have significant sentimental value.

In addition, if there are a significant amount of personal letters in the house, save them in a box to read over later (and possibly keep or scan) before you throw them out. This takes time, but just tossing them wholesale without reviewing them can lead to a loss of family/personal information that you'll regret later on. Be alert for family bibles or other books that might have genealogical information in them. Try to hang on to a few samples of her handwriting, if possible.

Finally, think of her estate in terms of legacy to your own children. Keep a few things (they don't have to be large) that represent her (and your Grandfather -- I will assume she kept many of his things) that you or your sister might one day want to pass on to your children or grandchildren. These might be things like jewelry or cuff-links or watches or service medals, but might also be things like a recipe box or a quilt or just a glass candy dish.

I am sorry for your loss. You're a good person to volunteer to do this. Its a hard, sweaty job, but taking your time with it can lead to significant rewards on down the line.
posted by anastasiav at 11:10 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: For many things you will need a certified copy of the death certificate. If your Grandfather or Grandmother were veterans you should apply for the death benefits. there is a small allowance for a grave marker, etc.

IRAs, Annuities, insurance, Pensions, bank accounts, etc. all need to be looked into by the executor
posted by Gungho at 11:15 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: I'd like to address the online memorial. Many funeral homes offer a tribute page/guest book..but without paying a fee the memorial goes down after awhile. I have my entire family "interred" on a website that serves mostly for genealogists. The name of the website is a little off-putting ("Find a Grave") but it was started about famous people and then it morphed into a huge community that seeks to document everyone who has lived and died. Everyone! If you go there and search for your own last name you will likely find many of your own relatives. The best thing is that the memorial tribute pages are nicely designed, you can add can write whatever you want, the pages are free, and your Grandmother's friends can sign in and leave virtual flowers and notes. Once the page is up if you google search your grandmother's name she will have an online presence ostensibly "forever" (the aim of the website is to make the information available...always!). Another great feature is that it includes the final resting place..wherever that may be..cremation, unknown, etc. Here is a sample page: Marianne Sullivan
Find a Grave (not to mention there are forums to help you mourn the loss of your Grandmother if you wouldn't mind a cyber hug).
My heart goes out to you...!
posted by naplesyellow at 11:15 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First; I'm so sorry for your loss. You have my sympathies.

Record keeping; keep in mind that the IRS has statues of limitations, but estates are often higher on the radar for audits. The statute of limitations limits the time during which an action can be brought by the IRS for an audit and the time for IRS tax collection activities. Generally, there is a 3-year statute of limitations for the IRS auditing a tax return and a 10-year statute of limitations for the IRS collecting tax. Thus, you should make sure to keep records going back at least 3 fiscal years.

I see a lot of estate sales in neighborhoods where there is a preponderance of older folks. They are generally well attended, however, I recommend that it be staffed by someone other than family members if possible. Perhaps someone from her church or your parent's church, if they have one. I really recommend against being there when the sale is ongoing.

mygothlaundry has a lot of good advice, especially note the legal notice to creditors, and the taking some time to reflect rather than using a flurry of activity to distract you from your grief.

Again, I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by dejah420 at 11:17 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: My condolences on your loss!

From my experience, I suggest getting an alarm system for the house, one with a heat sensor for fire detection as well intruder-detection systems. If it's an old house, or even a not-so-old one, the wiring might be in bad shape. We almost had a fire when my bro (the executor of my dad's estate) walked in the house (ca. 1800 or so) and turned on a light. He ordered an alarm system immediately. (He's a fireman and fortunately thought of the heat-sensing option; I had no idea they had them for residential property. Duh.) Years earlier, we did not have one for Gram's house, which sat empty at a distance for a while. The house was robbed and trashed.

Get gloves and a dust mask for going through stuff in the house, especially basement, attic, shed, or the like. Even boxes of ephemera or a pile of magazines in the house. I got very, very sick going through decades of stuff (well, OK, a century) of stuff in Dad's barn without gloves and a dust mask. It was awful. When I went back up for the final clear-out, I insisted on using them. Please get them!!! Drywall gloves are good; lightweight, with grippy stuff on them.

This could be extra-tedious, but flip through books before discarding/donating/selling to make sure there are no photos, etc., you might want that have been stuck in between the pages. I know someone who bought a pile of books at a second-hand store, brought them home, and one of the books was hollowed out. It contained about a thousand dollars of jewelry, mostly antique, including a victorian diamond bracelet - labeled with things like "Aunt Susie's ring." No way to trace the original owner. Heartbreaking. (This person now treasures the "book jewelry" and would never part with it.)

Don't wrap breakables in old newspaper - they smell and get you and your heirlooms dirty.

There are legacy sites. used to offer that service (they are the concern that has taken over newspapers' online obits and guest pages). also has some links and info that might help with the questions you have posed. For a site, or Ning group might be good; they are easy to set up. The funeral home will know or might have a service themselves.

Go slowly and take breaks. Stay hydrated. Sorting will be hard on your hands, so some Avon Silicone Glove or another protecting cream will be good to have, even under the gloves. Take a bubble bath at the end.

If your grandmother held an office in any clubs or or the like, you will need to find the related materials and hand them over. My mom's church ladies began clamoring over those records quite quickly.

Again, I cannot stress the mask and gloves enough!

The very best of luck to you and your family!
posted by jgirl at 11:49 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: My condolences.

If you have already made funeral arrangements, the funeral home may have resources, such as checklists, to offer you. Smoothing this transition is part of their job. Also, any probate or estate lawyer should be able to give you a decent run-down of what needs to be done and by whom.
posted by mikewas at 10:00 AM on August 13, 2009

Response by poster: I cannot thank you all enough for the great suggestions. I'd mark them all best answer, really. I'm going to go home tomorrow afternoon and if any more specific questions come up, I know who to turn to... my MeFamily.

Boxes and packing tape and filing stuff are going with me per many people's instructions to file and sort and keep financial records, which is something I hadn't really planned to do but will probably be more clear-headed to handle it than others. The condolences are appreciated, too. I lived with my grandparents from age 13 on, so this is hitting me hard right now. It's like I lost my mom, best friend, grandmother and our family matriarch all in one. If anything else comes up that I think would be helpful I'll post that here too for future question-searchers.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:45 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am coming back to make a few recommendations for future question-searchers, since these issues came up over the past three days and we didn't anticipate them beforehand:

1. A full set of tools you'd use to disassemble furniture (Allen wrenches, screwdrivers, drill, hammer, flashlight)

2. If you can get this information ahead of time, it's very useful: passwords for personal voicemail, email, the security password for the alarm system (should anyone accidentally set it off during the cleaning process) and online banking account, if applicable. Sometimes they can be guessed, but it's stressful trying to go through possibilities after the fact when you need access (or to stop the alarm company from sending the police).

3. A ball of twine to tie armoire doors closed, sewing machines and other things that may come open during transport and a dolly for lifting large furniture items that cannot be disassembled

4. Manila envelopes. Besides the obvious use they'd have for sorting paperwork in filing boxes... we discovered a drawer completely full of cards, letters and the like from family members she'd saved; we felt bad trashing them, so my aunt decided to sort them by sender and if the sender was alive, known by us and their address was readily available, she grouped the items and sent them to that person with a copy of the memorial service handout and a note explaining why he/she was getting them back. This may not be for everyone, but for us grandchildren it was very sentimental seeing those things again and knowing she'd kept and treasured them.

5. Colored stickers that you'd use during a garage sale, preferably neon so they stand out. My aunt wanted to go through each room and decide what went where, and color-coding things will help my cousins know at a glance what to bag up for donation, what to throw away and what to leave out.

6. A recommended and trusted Realtor that also has experience leasing residential homes, condos, etc. That way if you decide to rent the home out while it's for sale or delay the sale process for various reasons, you only have to deal with one liaison/company.

7. A Polaroid camera or digital camera with a small, portable printer. I realized when going through the cabinets that my grandmother didn't have one or two crystal candlesticks, she had crap tons of them, similarly serving plates, linen napkins, etc. You can box these things up and label it "candlesticks" but if the deceased collected anything and had different colors, materials, sizes... taping photos of the items in the box vs. just listing the box contents will help others figure out where a particular set/type of that thing is for later, especially if you're doing something like giving each great-grandchild a piece of silver, crystal, or a hand-crocheted afghan (there was a whole closet of those, too).
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:21 PM on August 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

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