Nov 26 Daniel Allen stared in shock after opening the door to his grandmother's closet. Books, clothing, and years of unused Christmas presents filled every inch. Another room was packed floor to ceiling with personal items such as books, photos, and news clippings.
"She was a packrat," said Allen, who was helping his family clean his 92-year-old grandmother's Waterloo, Indiana, farmhouse after she passed away in March. "It was overwhelming."
Fortunately, Allen was more prepared than most. As a manager within Wells Fargo's Estates Services group, he works with families and executors to take an inventory, appraise, and dispose of items after a death, so he was able to work through his initial disbelief.
Allen helped relatives sort through numerous items that had either monetary or nostalgic value, such as Polaroid cameras, mixing bowls, and costume jewelry. Family members selected what they wanted, and other items were packed off to a charity. Farm equipment that had belonged to Allen's grandmother was sold to offset some of the estate settlement costs.
Like Allen, relatives of extreme collectors or hoarders can be stunned when they enter a loved one's home after a death. When every surface is piled high with what appears to be trash, families are tempted to throw everything away.
That can be a bad idea.
"In the clutter of an extreme collector or hoarder, about 99 percent of the time there's something there, underneath a pile or hidden in the clutter, that will bring value to the estate when sold," Allen said.
Kristin Bergfeld, founder of New York-based Bergfeld's Estate Clearance Service, which helps families sort through complex estates, confirmed that. She said she has found jewels sewn into the hems of garments, raw diamonds wrapped up in tissues, and at least one rare, valuable book hidden under towels at the bottom of a linen closet.
Television shows like the A&E network's "Hoarders" and TLC's "Hoarding: Buried Alive" may make it seem like compulsive hoarding, in which people accumulate so much stuff that it clogs their living spaces and impedes their ability to function, is on the rise.
But the disorder has remained fairly constant, affecting between 2 percent and 5 percent of the population, according to Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College who has studied the behavior.
Many other people exhibit borderline behavior, collecting one or a few categories of items to excess but not actually blocking the pathways in their homes. Informally called "extreme collectors" or "packrats," they do not fall under the clinically recognized term of "hoarder."
But that distinction means little to a person pained by the overflowing estate of someone with either proclivity. The psychological pain of deciding what to sell, keep, or give away and what to toss can be worse than the cost.
"It felt like a bit of her memory was being lost," Allen said of watching his grandmother's possessions being thrown away.
The financial cost of cleaning a hoarder's or packrat's estate can be significant. A professional helper like Bergfeld may charge $100 or more an hour to sort and sell.
Heirs should also give themselves time to prepare for the psychological aspects of the task and then streamline it as much as possible. There are effective ways to do that:
Look for valuables. Check in unlikely places, like the backs of picture frames, inside books, throughout closets, and in refrigerators and freezers, for hidden cash or valuables.
Document cash and any possible valuables, such as jewelry or art, that you find. It will have to be itemized and the value declared, said Roland Sabates, manager of tax research at The Tax Institute, a research arm of H&R Block. Objects worth more than $3000 must be appraised by a certified professional, he said, and there are significant penalties for undervaluing an estate and underpaying estate taxes.
To determine values, check the free online database of 750,000 items at Kovels.com and the online listings at eBay.com. You can also hire an appraiser to do an aggregate valuation of all of the personal property in the home. That can cost about $1,000 at $100 an hour, according to Patricia Atwood, a Chicago-area accredited appraiser specializing in antiques and decorative arts.
Charge expenses back to the estate; that reduces it and can cut estate taxes. (While federal estate taxes do not apply to estates of less than $5.12 million for people who die in 2012, state estate taxes can kick in at much lower levels.)
Executor commissions are deductible, as are fees for attorneys, tax professionals, appraisers, and estate sale experts.
Consider donating items worth less than $100 to a certified 501(c)(3) charity; that can lower the gross value of the estate, and those items may not be worth the time it would take to sell them.
If the estate falls under the estate-tax level, it makes more sense to inherit the household goods first and then donate them yourself. That way, you can use the charitable tax deduction to limit your own income taxes.
Now comes the hard part: Disposing of the assets.
Ebay Inc.'s online auction site is one option, but not for those crunched for time. Plan to spend about two hours per item to photograph it, write the listing, answer questions, package it, and finally send it. You also need to factor in fees paid to eBay and PayPal, which vary depending on how much you reap from the auction.
If you're selling specialized items, look for other people devoted to the same specialty. There are websites for collectors of everything from model trains to snow globes and Pez candy dispensers.
Keep careful records of the proceeds, remembering to deduct fees as they add to the value of the estate.
Some charities will agree to take almost everything left in a home, such as cooking supplies and furniture. When using this option, make sure it is a 501(c)(3) charity and get a receipt.
Another option is to outsource everything. Companies such as Bergfeld's can clean the house, find appraisers, handle charitable donations, and ship treasured items to family members. Fees vary, ranging from about $40 per hour per worker to pack materials and increasing along with the duties.
Some banks, such as Wells Fargo, have departments that can handle the same chores. On average, bank departments charge a one-time fee plus a charge (typically about 3 percent) based on the gross value of the entire estate, a Wells Fargo spokesman said.
The more cluttered the estate, the more worthwhile using a trained professional with a keen eye might be.
"There will always be surprises," Bergfeld said. Like diamonds in the debris.
By Chelsea Emery | NEW YORK