Most of us value our relationships far more than our possessions. But when a death robs us of an important relationship, their belongings can assume great significance for us and others as tangible reminders that we can touch and hold as evidence of the reality of their former existence.

Very sadly, disagreements and disputes about who should have what after someone has died can become very entrenched and be the cause of long-term family breakdowns. In some instances, these disagreements are the visible evidence of pre-existing underlying tensions that have been held in check for the sake of the person while they were alive. This may happen especially where there has been a second marriage or long-term relationship of someone with adult children after the first marriage came to an end. If the new partner inherits (through a Will) or assumes they have inherited what was once the family home of the children, which contains items that hold precious childhood memories of their own parents, there is the potential for conflict and great residual bitterness.

How to deal with belongings in a lawful way

The following is a suggested step by step way of dealing with belongings, which includes reference to a Will (if there is one) and if the estate is being dealt with under the Rules of Intestacy.

Some people never face the perhaps daunting task of sorting out wardrobes, drawers and cupboards after someone has died, leaving it to their next-of-kin to deal with after they too have died. However if someone lived on their own and especially if the property is rented, this is usually a task that needs to be completed sooner rather than later. If the person who has died was getting support with housing costs due to a low income, this stops on the date of death and any landlord will expect full rent to be paid until the property has been cleared.

A. High Value Items e.g., pictures, precious gem jewellery, designer watches, collections

If the total value of possessions does not exceed £1,500, you can use information from the internet to calculate the value of possessions. Professional valuations should be used if the total is higher than this amount.

  1. Are there items of high value that will be left in an unoccupied property?

Small items of high value e.g., jewellery and also important documents should be removed from an unoccupied property for safe-keeping. Seek advice from your legal professional if you are using one. If necessary, these items can be stored by a bank. Also ensure these items are appropriately insured. Any insurance in the sole name of the deceased person will become invalid on their death and new insurance for high value items of the deceased can be taken out in the name of the administrator/executor of the estate.

  1. Do you know the monetary value of high value items for calculating the value of the estate?

Look for insurance valuations or receipts to identify any high value items. Please be aware that this should also include collections e.g., porcelain, stamps or similar. If necessary, seek valuations from specialist sales houses. Note that for the purposes of calculating the value of the estate, you need to know the amount an item might reasonably sell for on the open market so this is not the same as an insurance or replacement valuation. 

  1. Even if there is a Will, specifying what items are bequeathed to whom, please do not hand over these items to the named beneficiaries.

Until the administration of the estate is completed, you cannot guarantee that some items may need to be sold to enable repayment of debts or payment of inheritance tax.


B: Ordinary Belongings

If the total value of belongings is less than £1,500 you can make an estimate of their open market value if you need to go through the probate process for the estate. This will normally be if there is a property which is part of the estate or there are financial institutions which require probate before releasing any funds to the estate.

  1. Even if there is a Will, specifying what items are bequeathed to whom, please do not hand over these items to the named beneficiaries.
    Until the administration of the estate is completed, you cannot guarantee that some items may need to be sold to enable repayment of debts or payment of inheritance tax.
  2. If there is no Will and there is a surviving spouse or civil partner, ordinary belongs pass to them by survivorship, or if there is no surviving spouse or civil partner, they pass equally to the children of the deceased person.
    If the relationships are more distant, please call the National Bereavement Service or obtain professional help, especially if there is more than one entitled person.
  3. Without a Will, a co-habiting partner is not entitled to assets in the estate that belonged solely to the deceased person. However jointly held assets do pass to them by survivorship.
    If a co-habiting partner was sharing a home with the person who died, it is potentially difficult to prove that ordinary house contents were not jointly owned without proof of the deceased person having solely purchased everything.
  4. Where there is a Will, possessions specified in the Will can be passed to beneficiaries once probate is obtained and all debts have been paid. If probate is not needed, the executor should still ensure all debts have been paid before passing on items that have been left to named beneficiaries.
    Beneficiaries should be asked to sign a receipt for items they receive under the terms of a Will.
  5. If there is no Will, it is worth attempting to negotiate with family members to ensure they receive what they wish, if at all possible, by mutual agreement.
    Try and discover if the person who has died ‘promised’ certain items to particular individuals during their life. This may be items of jewellery, household objects such as pictures or clocks or even items of furniture that were significant to the proposed beneficiary. If the deceased person left a ‘letter of wishes’ this can be used as a guide but does not have legal force.
    If you have to seek legal advice on how to deal with these issues, the costs will almost always far outweigh the monetary value of the disputed items.

General Ways to Pass on Belongings

It is not uncommon for a Will to instruct that possessions should be dealt with at the discretion of the executor(s). This usually means that there are no individual high value items. In some cases, family and friends may be permitted to choose possessions if they pay the appropriate value of the item into the estate for a nominated charity.

Where there is no Will and no risk of dispute, family members and then friends may voluntarily agree to such an arrangement. When items are large e.g., furniture, it is the recipient who should arrange and pay for transport.

  1. Furniture and white goods
    There are many charities which will take items in reasonable condition and refurbish them to donate to families in need or to sell. Not all are able to take white goods and not all are able to collect. Soft furnishings such as mattresses and sofas cannot normally be taken unless they have the original fire safety certificate that was supplied attached to the item. Many parts of the country have ‘Free in xxxxx’ or ‘For sale in xxxxx’ internet sites where items can be offered or there are sites such as, and It is always important to check the rules of these sites as they operate in different ways and also for any commission charges.
  1. Clothing
    Hostels providing services for homeless people may welcome clothing that is in reasonable condition, especially in non-average sizes. Check with them what items they will accept. Some may accept clean and in good condition underclothes. Most high streets have charity shops that will accept clothing in good condition that is clean and in good condition. It is strongly recommended that clothing is taken somewhere away from the area where the person who died was living, especially if there are surviving close relatives and friends in the same area. Very good condition items of good quality clothing may be taken to a dress agency where it can be sold less the commission charged by the agency.
  1. Recycling
    It does take some effort but try and recycle as much as possible of items that cannot be sold or given away. Enlist the help of other family and friends with this. Council recycling sites take a wide variety of goods that have been pre-sorted for safe disposal.
    Destroy the hard drives of any computers that cannot be upcycled before disposing of them.
  1. House Clearance services
    If you cannot cope with clearing a property of belongings there is the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers. It sets standards for its members work so that you know you are getting a professional who knows what they are doing, and is experienced in working with bereaved people. To find a member of the APDO near you go to their search website HEREThis may also be helpful if you live at a distance or are physically unable to take this on for any reason. However, if a property is unlikely to contain items that you may want or of some value, it may be more appropriate to use a local house clearance company though an internet search. They should still check with you before disposing of items such as paperwork that might have important information.
  1. Forensic Cleaning Services
    Sometimes people find themselves dealing with a property where someone has died and not been found for some time or has been the scene of an incident resulting in blood stains and other traumatic evidence of what has happened. There are companies who are equipped and qualified to deal with these situations. Find them using the search terms of forensic cleaners, crime scene cleaners, trauma cleaners. Some companies are geographically based and others offer national services. They will have all the necessary licences to deal with property affected by biological material which has to be disposed of by safe means.

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