23 August 2013

Estate clean-out: clothes & textiles, papers (2/2)

Yesterday, our take-away lesson was that only one-twelfth of the clothes and textiles in your house are useful or interesting to anyone in your family, so you should clean your stuff out early and often. Today, we're talking papers.

Lesson two: You need to keep almost none of the paper that you're keeping. This means on paper but also electronically. Get rid of it!

In my lawyering work, I regularly counsel non-profit organizations on corporate governance. A big part of that work involves preparing and implementing policies about retaining and shredding operational documents. Documents range from innocuous everyday correspondence to incorporation paperwork, employee records, property records, leases, applications for grants, and so on. There are generally accepted practices for handling just about every scrap of paper that enters a non-profit's office, and my job is to facilitate proper handling.

You're not a non-profit organization, and I'm not your lawyer. But here's a general guide for what to do with the paper that comes into your home.

Your overall strategy should be to touch paper only once. Bring your mail in and sort it immediately. Toss the junk mail. Open bills, toss the inserts, and file the bill and return envelope for paying. If you get paper confirmations of online payments or check deposits, open and file immediately, or consider opting for e-mail confirmations instead. Set magazines wherever it is you'll sit and read them. Put the doctor's appointment reminder postcard next to your computer, phone, or calendar. Designate a spot for merchandise catalogs and clear them out as quickly as they pour in.

Make a date with yourself quarterly or biannually to get rid of the accumulated magazines and catalogs. You can always find a back copy of a magazine at your library or on the magazine's website, and it's not your job to be the magazine's archivist.

As for the "document retention and destruction" end of paper management, I was going to type up a huge list of the types of papers you will likely encounter, and a chart telling you how long to keep them before throwing them out. But it turns out that there are plenty of other guides online, including one by the entity that can audit you when your taxes don't look right. This "Managing Household Records" page is very good [1]. I like it because, essentially, the only time you can go to jail for not handling paper correctly is when you mess with the IRS. So a guide from the horse's mouth, so to speak, is going to be reliable and complete for most people's purposes.

On to the nitty gritty. A huge category of papers we had to handle at the deceased elderly aunt's house last weekend was monthly statements. We saw statements from bank accounts, health insurance, life insurance, homeowners insurance, vehicle insurance, phone bills, utility providers, credit card issuers, and so on. Really, every entity under the sun that would send a monthly or quarterly statement to the elderly aunt, she would keep the paper. For years. For decades. We found canceled checks from 1971, township tax assessments from 1981, long-distance phone bills from 1991, investment statements from 2001, and hospital bills from 2011. She had retained paperwork that she should have discarded as soon as her checking account reconciled with the bill payment -- in other words, she kept paper for 40 years that she could have ditched after 40 days.

Six copier-paper boxes' worth of it!

Don't get me wrong. There are things you should keep forever, and things you should keep a few years. The usa.gov page there includes a handy chart. Most usefully, in my opinion, is the entry for your filed income taxes and associated paperwork. Keep them for 7 years after filing -- this has to do with your risks of being audited, and how far back you can file amended returns. But it's just 7 years!

The oldest tax return we found at elderly aunt's house was filed in 1965. That's some scary math.

Finally, a note about scanning and going so-called paperless. OK, so you've scanned in the incoming paper and shredded it. Now you have an image or a PDF of the paper and you have to put it somewhere. Disk space is super cheap, and you get a lot of free space on various cloud computing storage services and gmail. But you still need to manage this garbage so that you don't have the electronic equivalent of an overflowing file cabinet. Name the file folders intelligently, and calendar time for yourself, regularly, to go in and delete the outdated files. You don't need 5-year-old paper credit card statements; and you don't need 5-year-old electronic statements, either.

Get rid of it! Your groaning file cabinets (or filesystems) will thank you for it.

[1] Ignore the broken PDF link; though I found a good copy here (PDF), I think it's overkill and may be overwhelming for someone initially attacking a clutter problem.

22 August 2013

Estate clean-out: clothes & textiles, papers (1/2)

Last weekend's clean-out at the house of the deceased elderly aunt involved two major categories of items: clothes and textiles, and papers. There was a lot, and there are a couple of take-away lessons here.

Lesson one is that no one wants your clothes and linens once you're gone. You bought your clothes for you, or at least because you think they're nice. Now you've worn them, so they're not in the most pristine shape. (As a long-time thrift store shopper and volunteer, I can say that men in particular tend to run their clothes into the ground before discarding or donating them.) Or you've had to have them tailored, and now they'll fit no other body but your own. Or if you've never worn them, they're probably not stylish to many other people, especially if you bought them a while ago -- my rule of thumb is 5 years for women's clothes, 10 years for men's. And many, many people simply won't buy used clothes, so it's a flooded market where no ordinary seller gets a good price. In short, you spent money on your clothes, but they're not an "investment" that your estate will be able to recoup.

As for linens, not only do your towels and sheets get worn out as the years go on, but they also end up with a sort of "ick factor" attached to them. If few people will buy used clothes, even fewer will buy a used washcloth or pillowcase. Some thrift shops won't even take the donation. Or if they do, it's only because they can sell the otherwise unsaleable material as "weight," that is, for a few cents per pound to a recycler that will shred the clothes and remanufacture them into, say, carpet padding.

But it's not just stained tablecloths that get turned into weight. It's your wedding gown, your baby slippers, your hand-knitted afghan blanket. This is because no one wants your old clothes and textiles, seriously. Of the dozen full-size contractor trash bags of stuff we gathered this weekend, we identified one single bag's worth of things to keep. That was it! A three-piece suit that was classically enough tailored that it's stylish now, which the elderly aunt's husband likely wore only to weddings and funerals; his old Army duffel, a sweet and tangible reminder of his military service; and some linen teatowels and a machine-lace tablecloth, still in its package, likely all dating to their own wedding in the early 1960s.

See the math there? Only one twelfth of Elderly Aunt's clothes and linens held any meaning or use for the family! Our job would have gone so much more quickly if she had gone through her old clothes regularly and cleaned them out. And linens? Veterinarian offices and pet shelters will often take them, but only if you call first.

Lesson two . . . tomorrow!

19 August 2013

Recipe: One-pot pasta and CSA slicing tomatoes

Tomatoes are in full swing here in the mid-Atlantic, and our Community-Supported Agriculture subscription has been providing us with two or three pounds of slicing tomatoes every week for the past couple of weeks. Now, they're called slicing tomatoes because supposedly they're no good for pasta sauce, and they should be used only for sandwiches, salads, and the relish tray, from which a person can take single slices and nibble them raw, seasoned with salt and pepper.

But the other day, my supermarket discounted my favorite pasta brand to my price point ($1.00/pound), so I bought a dozen boxes. And it's summer, so although we've had some cooler, rainier weather recently, I don't want to heat up the house making "gravy." Here's my almost-no-cook solution to use up those delicious slicing tomatoes -- and quantities of pasta at the same time.


  • 2 servings dried pasta, any style
  • 1 large slicing tomato
  • 1 clove garlic
  • dried oregano to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste


    Start cooking the pasta. While waiting for the water to boil and the pasta to cook, slice the tomato into very small dice. (It is not necessary to peel the tomato nor discard the seeds and membrane.) Mince the garlic very finely.

    Drain the pasta when done and return to the pot. Add the tomato, garlic, oregano, and salt and pepper. Heat through on medium-high heat until some liquid is absorbed or cooked off and the tomato has softened, stirring gently as needed. Serve immediately, topped with cheese, if desired.

    Serves 2. To make larger quantities, try the ratio of 1 large tomato to every 2 servings. However, keep the garlic ratio down to 1 clove to every 2-4 servings, because the garlic stays very raw and sharp in this recipe.
  • 05 August 2013

    Possible ongoing topic: cleaning out a deceased relative's home

    The elderly aunt of a very close friend passed away in July, so I've been back and forth from my home in Philadelphia to her home in South Jersey several times in the past few weeks. The immediate arrangements are finished, so my mid-week trips are over with. But since my friend was named co-executor of the estate, we'll be heading back for many weekends in the coming months to help clean out the house.

    And the RV and van.

    And the garage and crawlspace.

    And the shed out back.

    And the two storage units.

    And the storage locker at the flea market where she sold crafts.

    The family is grateful that the aunt had her will in place and mostly up-to-date; it made starting the probate process very straightforward. But she didn't have all of her other documents in one single location -- and thus, the co-executors aren't sure that they've actually found everything.

    I'm not sure if I'll be blogging about the clean-outs, mostly because I likely won't be available to help with most of it. Luckily, there's no huge rush to finish the house: it's fully paid off and there are no liens against it, it's in fine shape, and no part of it is in a dangerous or unliveable condition. I'm deliberately not calling her a hoarder. Other than dealing with the sheer volume of items in the house, it shouldn't be a physically unpleasant job. Just big.

    My understanding is that the co-executors will be focusing on the storage units first (no, nobody's found the keys yet), in order to terminate the contracts and stop paying rent on them as soon as possible.

    So far, the take-away lesson here is to get your documents and keys together, keep them in one place, and make the location available to whoever has to deal with your estate. What good is a thoughtful life insurance policy payable to your grand-niece or -nephew, if no one can find it or even know it exists?

    Actually, a second take-away: I just discovered Unf**k Your Habitat, a blog about cleaning up a messy home, adopting useful habits, and cursing along the way.