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Elder Law Newsletter: The Family Storage Unit Dilemma


My husband and I recently took our daughters to the storage unit we rent. This was an exciting adventure. You see, we have had this storage unit filled with things since my mother and grandmother passed away. We have been keeping these "treasures" stored away for when our daughters started their adult lives and would be furnishing homes of their own. The unit was filled to the ceiling with everything from furniture to knickknacks. When we packed these things away nine years ago, I'm sure that the method for organizing made sense to us. Pile all of the boxes filled with things on one side and the furniture on the other, and then just shove everything else into the crevices. Things were stacked in a Jenga-type tower that threatened to come tumbling down if we moved one thing in the wrong direction. Have any of you had similar experiences?

We all stood in front of the opened door and just stared. I was the first one to ask if anyone had a plan. The one thing we all knew that needed to come out of there was a bedroom set that had been in my parent's guest room, which our eldest daughter used to called the princess room. She loved to spend the night, sleep on the huge four poster bed, and pretend she was a princess. Now, the bed was perfect for her to furnish her new bedroom. That was the easy part.  None of us really knew what else was in the unit. There were boxes labeled living room, bathroom, and family photos. My stomach turned as I thought about unpacking all of those boxes just to figure out what was in them to then probably find out that our daughters didn't really even want the stuff. I bet many of you can relate.

I have worked with many families in the exact same situation. When we were cleaning out two houses full of possessions, we just couldn't seem to get rid of things because "someone might need them." Nine years and many monthly rental payments later, we were facing the cold hard truth… possessions are only important if they either serve a specific purpose and/or if they bring you happiness.

I have recently become obsessed with a new show on Netflix called "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo." As you can imagine from the title, this show is about how the star helps people go through their stuff and decrease clutter. The main takeaway, however, is rather than judging items by how often they're used or their value, cleaners should pick up each item they own and ask themselves if it "sparks joy" in them. If it does, it stays. If it doesn't, it goes. Before trashing anything, Kondo says to thank the item for its service. I wish we had used this method before storing all of these family belongings. At the time of their deaths, I think it was easier for our family to put the things in boxes and think that someone would eventually use them rather than admit these things were useful earlier in life but don't need to be saved. The things my mother and grandmother owned were just that… things they owned. They were not their identity. I think we were confusing the possessions with memories of them. But at the time, getting rid of the possessions seemed disrespectful or callous so we just kept them. Realistically, locking them away for nine years isn't really doing anything but putting off what we should have done before… get rid of things. 

After personally going through this dilemma and helping hundreds of clients with this very challenge, I came up with a short list to help anyone who might be prone to fall into this trap.

8 Ways to Prevent Your Children or Grandchildren from Having the Storage Unit Dilemma

  1. Start combing through things now. Don't wait until you are forced to do it.
  2. Take pictures of things that have memories to you, and then – let them go.
  3. Give items to people who might be able to use them. For example, I gave a full set of dishes to a friend's son who was moving into his own apartment and needed them. This would have made mom happy.
  4. Sell the items. Then, you can use the money for something you really want, for funding a vacation, for investing in the future, or for a charitable cause.
  5. Ask other family members if they would like to have any specific items to enjoy now.
  6. Find a professional organizer and hire them to help you.
  7. Ask yourself if you have used the item in the last six months, and if not, do you really need it?  

It's never too early to have the conversation. For more information on organizing family possessions and assets, please reach out to me or a member of our estate planning and elder law team. By being proactive, we help our clients avoid spending unnecessary time and effort during and after family losses and transitions.