Hoarding is more than just being a bit messy: It is a mental disorder causing some people to have difficulty discarding items, regardless of their value, and to experience severe distress even at the thought of it. If you have been named as the personal representative of a relative’s estate and discover that the deceased person’s home is packed, floor to ceiling, with collections, clothing, old mail, books, and papers, what should you do? It can be especially difficult, time consuming, and costly to serve as an executor to the estate of a hoarder.
Consider Whether to Accept the Job
If you live in another city or have a busy job or family life, you should reconsider administering a hoarder’s estate. Cleaning the home, locating money and property, and transfer or selling will involve a substantial amount of time and effort. But if you have not yet been formally appointed as the personal representative of an estate, you can renounce the role by filling out a form and filing it in the probate court that will handle the case and notify the beneficiaries or heirs of the estate. If you already have accepted the role, you can only be removed by petitioning to the court.
Identifying and Gathering Money and Property
First, check to see if the will makes specific bequests and make sure those items are secured and preserved. Then, begin the process of sifting through all of the hoarder’s other property to find items of value. Keep an inventory of any cash or valuables you locate.
Be Careful When Throwing Things Away
Although much of what makes up a hoarder’s estate may appear to be trash, there may be valuable items hidden in the midst of what seems to be rubbish or in other unlikely places. Kristin Bergfeld, founder of Bergfeld’s Estate Clearance Service in New York, said that she has located jewelry sewn in the hems of clothing, diamonds wrapped in tissues, and valuable rare books hidden under towels.
Consider Getting Help
In the case of someone who was simply a mild hoarder or pack-rat, it may be worthwhile to hire a professional cleaning crew. In more extreme cases, in which there are environmental hazards such as mold or vermin, an environmental remediation company may need to be hired before any further work can be done.
Note: It may be necessary to obtain permission from the court if the expense for the cleanup is out of the ordinary. In some extreme cases, the cleanup may take weeks or even months and involve substantial expense. The court should be given a reasonable estimate and an itemized list of the work that must be done, and it may be prudent to take before and after photographs of the home and its contents.
Fair Market Value
It is important to determine the value of non-cash items at the date of death, typically by hiring an appraiser, to avoid undervaluing the estate and underpaying any estate taxes that may be due, as this could result in significant penalties. In addition, if the estate will be divided evenly between heirs or beneficiaries, the personal representative can use the valuation to divide it properly.
Documenting the Condition of the Property
If the deceased person’s will does not specify the amount you, as the personal representative, should be paid, state law will determine the amount of compensation, often a certain percentage of the estate, a percentage of the transactions made by the estate, or a reasonable fee that is determined by the court. However, a personal representative may be entitled to an additional fee in some states if “extraordinary” services are provided. In dealing with the estate of an extreme hoarder, the personal representative may be able to claim a fee for extraordinary services if he or she can document that the duties of administering the estate were above and beyond the typical estate administration.
Get Estimates and Make Repairs
Sometimes, particularly in the case of an extreme hoarder, the residence may have suffered damage due to the hoarding, for example, scraped walls, broken windows, or scratched floors. If the house is to be sold, it may need to be repaired prior to the sale. To prove that the repairs were done for a reasonable price, you should obtain estimates that can be provided to the court. All repairs made and professional services hired should be charged to the estate. Although this will reduce the value of the estate, it may also reduce estate tax liability.
The foregoing points are some of the particular considerations relevant to the administration of a hoarder’s estate, but the personal representative of an estate has a number of duties that should be discussed with an experienced estate planning attorney before and during the administration process.
We Can Help
Administering any estate can be stressful, particularly if the deceased person was a loved one for whom you are grieving. If you are administering the estate of someone who was a hoarder or even had an extensive collection of particular items or memorabilia, the process can be even more burdensome. We can advise you about the proper steps to take in the administration process, both to enable the process to proceed as smoothly and quickly as possible, but also to help you avoid conflicts with heirs or beneficiaries and potential liability. Please call us today to set up an appointment—we are happy to meet with you by phone or video conference if you prefer.
Give Us a Call
Nielsen Law PLLC provides family focused estate planning to individuals and families in Austin, Round Rock, Cedar Park, and the Central Texas area. For more information and to learn about our firm, please contact us.
 Chelsea Emery, “Your Money-A Hoarder’s Estate Can Yield Treasures and Traumas,” Reuters, November 26, 2012, https://www.reuters.com/article/estates-hoarding-valuables/your-money-a-hoarders-estate-can-yield-treasures-and-traumas-idUSL1E8LCGIW20121126