Handling an Estate Sale Responsibly

Disclaimer:  I am neither an attorney nor a professional fiduciary, and I have no expertise on dealing with estate matters.  The concerns expressed in this post are based on personal observations.

Yesterday (Sunday), I went for a walk through one of San Francisco’s relatively upscale residential neighborhoods.

On my way to the public library branch, I saw a sign announcing an estate sale.  I had to give this some thought, before unwisely deciding I’d stop by the house and possibly buy something.

I remembered going to a couple of estate sales, and assisting in one other.  If you have the right sensitivity, they can be uncomfortable.  When I assisted in a sale during the 1980s, it was for the estate of someone I’d known all my life.  She had kept her apartment very well organized, so the logistics weren’t too difficult.  However, watching others leave with items I remembered J. owning was heartbreaking.

The two times in the past when I went to estate sales (for decedents I hadn’t met) as a potential customer, I remembered the sale held after J.’s passing.  I was aware that the furniture, books, dishes, etc. in those people’s homes had personal connections, and I left empty-handed, hoping those strangers had concluded their lives with a sense of peace.  I didn’t really want to own anything that had belonged to them, although I wouldn’t have thought twice before buying some of those items in a thrift store.

Thrift store transactions are more anonymous than estate sale transactions.  In a thrift store, you may know which nonprofit is benefiting from the sale, but it’s unlikely you know anything about the history of the object you’re buying.

Yesterday’s estate sale was one of those everyone should skip.  Evidently, the person who had lived in that home was a hoarder, and no one removed nonsalable items before inviting the public to negotiate our way through the pileup.  It appeared a lot of unwashed junk — some of it breakable — had been moved and stacked to create paths.

My parents were hoarders, and I had no control over the way their estate was distributed.  Although the person who took charge in that case behaved unethically, I’m grateful no one put up a sale sign to unload rusted tea kettles and the like.  It would have been an insult to my parents’ memory to have their compulsion — which they were comfortable describing to anyone they met — on public display.

I don’t know if the executor who authorized yesterday’s estate sale had the means to sift through thirty (Or forty?  Fifty?) years of accumulation to clear the area and hold a responsible sale.  I shouldn’t judge, in spite of the fact that it occurred to me while I was there that an earthquake could have been deadly to someone walking through one of those paths surrounded by junk.  One of the people who was there as a customer had his baby with him, and he had to turn around the stroller somewhere.  I don’t know where he did it, but he and his child got out without having to move in reverse.

If someone had been injured under these conditions, would the homeowner’s or contractor’s general liability insurance have covered costs?  This is a question an executor should ask before a sale, even if there are no visible hazards.  Be aware of the expiration date on the homeowner’s policy.

When at all possible, the executor of an estate should place the dignity of the deceased person first.  Discard or recycle nonsalable items, especially items that would cause embarrassment if the person were still living.

Contractors who oversee estate sales should be able to advise executors on how to dispose of medications, personal electronics (which may have stored information), weapons and household toxics.  Seriously, you don’t know what you’ll find when you look through someone else’s home, even if that person is a friend or a family member.

It should be added that I don’t know for a fact that yesterday’s sale was held by a contractor, although the sign on the sidewalk a couple of blocks away had a professional look which the sale itself was lacking.  It’s possible the heirs handled it themselves without proper planning, but with the right printing resources to make a nice sign.

I don’t know if anyone reading this is thinking about conditions in their own home.  If so, when you have a chance maybe you can locate a few unwanted belongings and arrange to donate, sell, recycle or discard them.  If there’s a problem with disorder in your home, be sure to wear sturdy shoes.  Those Lego pieces on the floor are nasty.


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