how to clear out an estate

Losing a loved one can be overwhelming, and the responsibilities required to settle an estate can be overwhelming to say the least. Families are often left with numerous loose ends to tie up, including disbursing final assets. These pro tips can guide you through how to clear out an estate.

Creating a plan with the estate executor is an important first step of any clearout project, and the one you should approach first.  It is important to know what kind of items you’re working with, where they are going, who you’ll be working with, a timeline for the project, and an overall cost for the estate.

Heather Cocozza of Cocozza Organizing and Design in Arlington VA has helped many people work through an estate clear out.  She offers this case study from a recent estate closeout she performed and makes recommendations for how to bring order to the process. 

How to Clear Out an Estate


Inventory items and decide what to SELL, DONATE, TRASH, or KEEP

Note each item as you walk through the room. Label items with sticky notes and keep a running list on a note pad of items going to specific people or places. List the items concisely with labels like Sell, Donate, Trash, or “Keep for Aunt Janet”. Note which possessions are most significant to the executor, especially personal items that will be passed on to friends and family. Take care to clearly label and document items so that you don’t accidentally dispose of an item with financial or sentimental value.

Know who will be receiving KEEP items and if they need to be shipped

Collect names and addresses, and inquire how these items should be transported to the recipients. Who will arrange for movers if needed? Who will be there to meet the items when they are delivered? How soon should they be shipped? Are there any special packing instructions for the items? Note the target date for moving.

Understand client’s intentions for donation

Specialty items marked for donation may need to be handled differently than others. In our case, several medical items including a hospital bed, wheel chairs, and walkers were set to be donated. Additionally, we had to handle donation of a piano. Taking these types of items to the local thrift store wasn’t a viable option. The client shared her desire for these particular items to be given to organizations handling specific medical and musical needs.

Discuss pricing

Reviewing organizing costs with your clients ahead of time to manage expectations is vital. The average person has no idea how much closing out an estate can cost. Include line items for any potential supplies, as well as any moving, repair and cleaning costs.


Designate specific areas for each category of items.

Tape up signs in separate areas of the home. Label each area for a different category, such as Book Donation, Medical Equipment Donation, Clothing Donation, To Shred, To “Aunt Janet” or “Uncle John,” Trash, and Consignment. By distinguishing areas for similar items, you can visualize how much you actually have to deal with in each category. This can also help with estimating costs.

Sort and purge

Now that you’ve labeled each item and have designated areas in the home for each category, you can sort items into their designation. Be sure to take inventory of items in each pile (except for TRASH).


Trash removal

Often a good first step in the cleanout process, trash removal enables you to see which items are left and gauge your next steps. Several kinds of junk removal companies are out there, and many are eco-friendly, taking care to sort for items to recycle or donate after picking up your load.

Moving companies

Arrange a time for packers to come and for items such as furniture and boxes to be moved onto the truck. For our project, the moving company spent a day packing items to be shipped, and transported them to a storage unit in another state.

Charitable organizations

Items for donation were sorted into specific categories: Medical, Home goods, Books, Furniture, Piano, and Clothes. Our client wanted certain items to go to specific places. A local church received her piano. The medical equipment was donated to an organization that places hospital beds, medical equipment and supplies to those in need. The rest of the furniture, books, and household items were picked up by The Salvation Army. We were careful to choose organizations that could pick-up onsite.

Consignment Shops and Auction Houses

Photograph each item to sell, then email the photos to consignment shops and auction houses. The more information you can share about the product, the better.

Shredding companies

Disposing of personal and confidential documents appropriately is important. For convenience and safety, try using a secure shredding service. They can bring lockable, secure bins to your location and empty them into onsite shredders.

Home maintenance services

If selling or renting out the residential property, consider hiring a cleaning service, repair person, painter, or exterminator to wrap things up on the estate closeout, ensuring the property looks its best.

This process can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Remember it’s okay to step back and take a breather when necessary. The good news is that you can take a step-by-step, organized approach to break down this huge task into more manageable pieces. You may want to consider hiring a move manager or estate specialist. They can be of great help in guiding you through the process, managing the entire project, or simply stepping in to complete only those tasks you’re dreading most. Whether you’re an organizer or an executor, you will be able to cross the finish line and breathe a sigh of relief when the estate is completely closed out.

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