Hoarding is not to be confused with general messiness, and it’s not an accurate way to describe someone who stockpiles a six-month supply of toilet paper. It’s actually a serious mental disorder that prevents people from discarding items, regardless of their value, and generates severe stress at the mere thought of doing so. It’s very unfortunate and very difficult for all involved. It’s not uncommon to be named as the personal representative of a relative’s estate and then discover that the deceased person’s home is packed, floor to ceiling, with collections, clothing, old mail, books, and papers. What should you do if this happens?
- First, decide if you should accept the job. If you live in another city or have overwhelming family responsibilities, think twice about administering a hoarder’s estate. Cleaning out the home, locating property, and getting the location ready for sale will involve more time and effort than you might estimate. If you have not yet been formally appointed, you can renounce the role by filling out a form and filing it in the probate court. The court will handle the case and notify the beneficiaries or heirs of the estate. If you have already accepted the role, you must petition the court for removal if you change your mind.
- The personal representative must identify all the deceased person’s money and property and gather them for safekeeping. First, check to see if the trust or will make specific bequests and make sure those items are secured and preserved. Then, begin the process of sifting through all the hoarder’s other property. Keep an inventory of any cash or valuables you locate.
- Resist the temptation to simply throw everything away. Much of the debris you see may look like trash, but valuable items are likely hidden in the midst of rubbish or in other unlikely places. Kristin Bergfeld, the founder of Bergfeld’s Estate Clearance Service in New York, said that she has located jewelry sewn in the hems of clothing, diamonds wrapped in tissues, and valuable rare books hidden under towels.
- Consider getting help. In the case of someone who was just a mild packrat, you may want to hire a professional cleaning crew. In more extreme cases, especially those involving mold or vermin, an environmental remediation company may need to be hired before you take the next steps. Note: You may need permission from the court for especially expensive cleanup operations. In some cases, the cleanup may take weeks or even months. The court should be given a reasonable estimate of the cost and an itemized list of the work that must be done, and you may want to take before and after photographs of the home and its contents.
- Determine the fair market value of any apparently valuable items that you locate. It is important to determine what these items were worth at the date of death, typically by hiring an appraiser. This can keep you from undervaluing the estate and underpaying any estate taxes that may be due, which could result in penalties. If the estate will be divided evenly between beneficiaries, the personal representative can use the valuation to divide it properly.
- Document the condition of the property and the time you spend sorting and cleaning. If the deceased person’s trust or will does not specify the amount you should be paid, state law will determine the amount. This is often a certain percentage of the estate, a percentage of the transactions made by the estate, or a reasonable fee determined by the court. However, a personal representative may be entitled to an additional fee in some states for “extraordinary” services. If this applies to you, you’ll need documents to demonstrate it.
- Get estimates and make repairs. Sometimes the residence suffers damage due to the hoarding, for example, scraped walls, broken windows, or scratched floors. If the house is to be sold, it may need to be repaired prior to the sale. Obtain estimates that can be provided to the court.
- Charge expenses to the estate. This can reduce the value of the estate, but it may also reduce estate tax liability.
The personal representative of any estate, no matter how messy or complex, has a number of duties that should be discussed with an experienced estate planning attorney before and during the administration process.
We Can Help
The administration of an estate can be stressful, especially if you’re moving through a grieving process at the same time. If you are administering the estate of someone who was a hoarder or even just a collector, the process can be even more burdensome. We can help you take steps that will move things forward as smoothly and quickly as possible, and we can also help you avoid conflicts with beneficiaries and potential liability. Contact us to set up an appointment—we are happy to meet with you by phone or videoconference if you prefer.