Mom's House, Your Responsibility

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Managing the home after a parent dies can be fraught with difficulties. Here’s a guide to bringing about a successful sale.

Nancy Loyd, left, and Mary Ann Brewer run Busy Buddies. “We cry with our clients,” Brewer says.
By Mara Lee
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 19, 2008; Page F01

Carylin Waterval’s mother had no will — and no time to prepare one.

At 63, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died within three weeks, leaving behind a small business and a four-bedroom house in Ashburn. Waterval, who lives in Alexandria and whose brother lives in Texas, found herself in charge of all the financial paperwork — bank accounts, stock holdings, tax records and unpaid bills. Even though Waterval, 42, is an accountant, she found the volume overwhelming.

Selling a house after a parent’s death can be a lengthy and daunting undertaking. Household bills still have to be paid. Then there’s the matter of deciding who wants what, how to ship it to them and how to dispose of the rest. There’s finding a real estate agent, deciding how to present the house and arriving at a price. And all this work may have to be done from out of town.

Until you sell the house, you have to manage it.

Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP and an author of “Caring for Your Parents: The Complete Family Guide,” said you have to “get an enormous number of death certificates” to get utilities shut off or put in your name.

When Ginzler had to take care of her father’s house in New Jersey after he died, she immediately took things that were valuable and portable to her home in the D.C. area and changed the locks.

Rhonda Macdonald, an estate lawyer in Vienna whom Waterval and her brother hired, said that if the adult children give her the account statements from the month their parent died, last year’s tax return and a summary of all the accounts, she prepares everything from there.

Managing the household bills isn’t the only concern. Macdonald said it shocks most executors to find out that the house’s insurance lapses automatically at the policyholder’s death. If there were a burst pipe or a fire during the months between the death and the sale, it would not be covered, even if the premiums were up to date.

Often, that company will not insure the house for the adult children because vacant houses are more subject to mishaps, she said. “You need to shop around for someone who will cover it,” Macdonald said.
Once you have the management in hand, it’s time to think about clearing out the house, which is likely to be the most time-consuming step.

Many people handle the work themselves, but if you want to hire help, there are two models — an estate sale and a senior move manager.

Estate-sale companies cull items and organize a sale. They generally take a 25 percent cut, but there has to be at least $6,000 worth of possessions for them to take a job. If a lot of the furniture is being passed to relatives, an estate sale may not
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