The short answer is you should not clean out the house right away. The sudden, unexpected passing of your parent or a loved one may have left you with countless questions and decisions. This includes what to do with the family home; particularly if it is vacant.
Before selling or disposing of any items from the property, you must understand both what is probate property and what is not and what is allowed in an Arkansas probate proceeding.
Should an Arkansas probate be necessary, make sure you’re well-educated on how best to go through with this process.
Why can’t I clean out the house now?
If your loved one’s estate needs to go through probate, it’s best not to touch anything in the home until given the green light.
The family shouldn’t start cleaning the home out because it is not technically yours yet, even if you are the only child or the only one that inherits under an estate plan.
Care must be taken when executing an estate: the executor is responsible for honoring the deceased’s desires and acting in the best interest of the estate. The court possesses the authority to appoint executors and to remove executors over an estate until the probate ends. It is essential that the executor does not recklessly deplete resources before this process concludes.
If anyone removes any items from the home before probate, then that person will be held legally responsible for the item. This includes giving items to people who aren’t listed in the Will.
Family members may want some of the deceased’s items as something to remember them by, but you should avoid doing so, especially if they are not named in the Will.
The executor’s job is to ensure the property is secure and that nothing becomes damaged or stolen.
Reason No. 1 You need to take an inventory first
First, the executor or personal representative must make a complete inventory of the property. You should do this even if everyone has signed a waiver in the probate. They could revoke the waiver and the executor will still have to provide the inventory. The inventory needs to be comprehensive and should include everything in the house (yes, even the items shoved in a closet or in the junk drawer).
The executor will be dividing the items into two main categories: probate & non-probate assets.
In addition to including all the stuff in the house, the inventory will serve as a beginning step in figuring out which of the deceased’s belongings are to be distributed to relatives and loved ones, sold, donated, or thrown away. Just remember you are still many steps away from actually distributing, donating, or discarding those items.
Pro Tip: Use a camera, you have one in your pocket. It is hard to argue with a camera.
Besides serving as an outline and record, why is taking an inventory so important? It all comes down to risk and liability.
The executor of the estate is expected to protect and preserve the estate’s assets. If anything is lost or stolen before or during the probate process, the executor could be held legally responsible for the loss of value to the estate.
And if you sell things prematurely, spend the money, and then realize that the estate owes a lot more to creditors than you realized, you may be responsible for paying that money back.
Risk and liability are the critical reasons why taking inventory is so essential. Not only does it give you an outline of your resources, but also helps keep track of them effectively.
The executor of the estate is tasked with preserving and safeguarding its assets. If any possessions are stolen or destroyed during probate, they could be held liable for the decrease in value to the estate.
If you sell possessions too soon, spend the money earned and later discover that more debt is owed to creditors than initially thought, it could be your responsibility to repay the funds.
Reason No. 2 You may not be able to get rid of stuff yet
The second reason you should not empty a house before probate is that the contents of the house might have been given to certain relatives.
The deceased individual may have wanted to avoid keepsakes, valuables, and memorabilia falling into just anyone’s hands — plus it’s likely that the deceased had specific intentions for some of their belongings, which could be outlined in their will.
In Arkansas, a will is not valid until it is probated in court. If you follow the will and it turns out to be invalid, it could be problematic.
So, wait until you have proper instructions on the Arkansas probate process from a probate lawyer!
Reason No. 3 You need to get the value of the personal property
The final reason you should not empty items from the house before probate is that you likely don’t have complete knowledge of the value of each object. Sure, you might add that antique watch to your inventory and estimate that it’s worth $100, but are you really sure?
Appraising the value of household items takes time and often requires an expert opinion. Remember anything you do improperly interested parties could file legal proceedings against you.
How To Clean a House After the Probate Process:
As we covered in the first part of this, it is not advised that you remove any property before probate, so the answer to the frequently asked question “can you clear a house before probate” is also a no. That said, that does not mean there’s nothing you can do beforehand.
How to Start the Cleaning Process
You can begin with a few basics, like changing the locks on the house. It is smart to change the locks to protect any valuable items. If more than one person has access to the house of the deceased person, then items can disappear.
That’s always a great place to start if you don’t know for sure how many people have access to entry and, just because courts don’t allow people to clear a house before probate, doesn’t mean people will necessarily respect that.
Now, this may cause family disputes, but it can help protect family heirlooms and valuables. Even if family members fight, it is important to follow the deceased’s wishes.
Change the Address
Pro Tip: Change the home address of where the deceased person lived to your home address. This will help with the legal procedure of discovery assets. You never know, you might get statements from life insurance policies that people did not know existed.
It can help with legal issues because you may get notified of outstanding debts and other information that may help.
Keep Paying Bills
You’ll definitely want to keep paying for things like house insurance and home maintenance, but feel free to cancel unimportant items, such as magazine subscriptions, for instance.
After the probate process is complete and an executor is named, you can then go about cleaning out the house properly. This process can be tedious and tiresome, but cleaning out a deceased parent’s house can also be emotional and stressful.
To help make the task of cleaning out a deceased parent’s house a little bit more manageable, it can be helpful to follow specific steps:
Search for important documents
- Important documents typically include bank statements, insurance policies, wills, photographs, letters, etc.
- Keep sentimental items and be sure to continue paying things like home insurance, utility bills, etc. until you can change or cancel them, but make sure to destroy sensitive information, like social security numbers.
Systematically create piles for belonging
The next step is the sorting process. Create three piles:
- Donate/Sell – Do not dell anything without permission from the probate court
- Throw away
Being organized will make the clearing process much easier and quicker, plus a systematic approach helps to combat some of the emotions you might be feeling as you work through this process.
If more than one family member wants to keep an item, it’s best to set that aside into a separate pile and come back to it later to negotiate and make the decision on who gets what.
Hire an appraiser and estate liquidator
- It may also be a good idea to hire an appraiser, as they’ll know how much items are worth and what makes sense to sell. For example, on your own, you might not have realized the value of vintage items or art pieces. Once you know what can be sold, an estate liquidator can also help you sell the items quickly.
So, while the answer to the question “can you empty a house before probate?” is no, after probate there are plenty of things you need to do to clear out a home and get it ready to sell if you choose to do so. While you wait for probate, you can always use the time to prepare for when you can clean out a deceased parent’s house and be ready to work quickly when the time comes that you may do so.
What to do with the personal items during probate?
Now, I have said you can’t clean out the house, but you can if you do it right. Just remember, for every action you take you may need to justify it to a family member or even a probate court.
Some items may have sentimental value, but there are many steps involved in probate. And you must determine what goes into probate, and what stays out (joint ownership with the surviving spouse for example).
Dealing with the legal process can be a painful process. Make sure if you have any questions you contact a probate attorney. If you end up taking an action that you are not legally entitled to take, it can be a big deal and can cause legal issues.