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Who Will End Up With Your Parents' Stuff? If It's You, You Need A Plan

Not only can our parents' stuff be hard to let go of when they pass on or move in to an assisted living facility, it can be impossible to sell.
Memories from the attic
Vintage items in an attic.cyano66 / Getty Images stock

All the furniture, crystal, and china sets our dear old folks have acquired may have suited their needs just fine, but the baby boomers and Gen-Xers who stand to inherit it may find themselves overwhelmed. There's often just so much stuff, and in many cases its value has diminished.

Not only can our parents' stuff be hard to let go of when they pass on or move in to an assisted living facility, it can be impossible to sell.

Richard Eisenberg, managing editor at boomer website Next Avenue, recently wrote about his experiences being inundated with precious possessions after his father passed away at 94.

Eisenberg told NBC News the blog post was among the most popular articles the website has ever published. Targeted at baby boomers, the site garners between 1 and 2 million views per month. This post surpassed a million views in just a view days, Eisenberg told NBC News.

"This story went viral because so many people can relate to it," said Eisenberg. "Even old high school friends I've not talked to in years are reaching out saying they have the same problem."

Even Charities May Say No

The problem is that even when our parents — or even we — are attached to our parents' household items, it is rarely feasible for anyone, even a charity, to take it in.

"It came as a sad surprise that even the Goodwill and the Salvation Army wouldn't pick up most of the stuff," Eisenberg said of the rooms of brown furniture and the cupboards of antique china. "I think they're saying no because their stores are cluttered and they don't think they will find a market for this stuff."

Old Habits, New Ways of Living

Marty Stevens-Heebner, founder & CEO of ClearHomeSolutions, notes that advanced seniors tend to have radically different ways of thinking about their possessions than younger generations.

"Our older clients belong to what I call 'the Deprivation Generation' because they lived through, or were the children of the Great Depression and World War II," said Stevens-Heebner. "They weren’t allowed to waste anything, and so it’s stressful for them to let things go."

Our elderly relatives may also have some understandable misconceptions about what is valuable and what is not. For instance, back in the day, china sets and crystal meant a lot. They were both high-cost and meaningful to a home.

"We don’t entertain at home anymore [to the extent we did]," said Stevens-Heebner. As a result, "many china, crystal and silver-plated utensil sets don’t find a place."

Related: Here's How Much the Average Person Saved for Retirement

"Today people can go to Target, Ikea, and even Walmart and outfit an entire apartment," said MaryKay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

And we're gradually living more minimally, with many of us, particularly millennials, not even buying homes let alone furnishing them for the long haul.

"People just want to travel lighter now," said Buysse. "Boomers are downsizing and they don't want their mom's stuff — and millennials, who aren't even buying houses and are dealing with student loan debt — don't want their grandma's stuff."

To Keep or Not to Keep?

Chances are you already know of a thing or two in your parents' home that you will hold on to, but if you have any questions that they can help answer, don't wait. However morbid and sad it is, knowing as much as you can ahead of time will help.

And it's okay to start out with the little things — those certainly pile up, too.

"Ask your parent(s) if there are any non-family members they would like a piece of jewelry or book to be given to," said Kristin Meekhof, social worker and author. "Friendships are often decades old and they may not have considered giving something meaningful to a friend.

"If there's a painting, ask where it came from and why it was purchased. Same thing with jewelry or books or that car that hasn't been driven. Now is the time to find the car title."

You may want to explain to your parents, or at least to yourself and siblings, that a lot of the furniture won't be sellable and will have to be tossed if it has no takers.

"There’s an overabundance of used furniture on the market," said Stevens-Heebner. "Unless it’s mid-century modern or a verified and valuable antique piece, sales outlets don’t want it. And if there’s any evidence of wear and tear, the non-profits will refuse it as well."

Try and keep in mind that even if you handle this like a pro, it's going to be hard on everyone involved. And these talks may take time.

"Expect to have multiple conversations with your parents as it is highly unlikely that this will be taken care of during one chat," said Meekhof. "Expect tears. Memories will be stirred, and it is bittersweet to plan for a time when they are no longer here."

Getting the Whole House? Try Selling It Furnished

Many boomers and Gen-Xers find themselves inheriting not only a home's worth of stuff, but the home itself. If you are putting it on the market, keep in mind that you can try selling it furnished.

"I recently represented the estate of a baby boomer whose out-of-state Gen-X children ultimately agreed that once they removed those items of personal significance to sell the recently renovated apartment complete," said Roberta Golubock of Sotheby's International Realty.

"It was sold fully furnished, with all the china, crystal, every appliance, [including] pots and pans, furnishings, linens and some art and books included. The out-of-state buyer was delighted not to have to set up a new household and the children were relieved of the need to move, sell, or donate the contents."