Cleaning a loved one’s home after death

An estate clean out after a death in the family can be a daunting and challenging task but read on for our tips to help make this difficult time a little easier.

Updated 25 June 2019

Octagonal shelving with books and flower plant for estate cleaning

Key steps:

  1. Clear one room before moving on to the next.
  2. Upcycle items where appropriate.
  3. Stock up on boxes and packing materials so goods can be stored or sent to new owners.

House cleaning after a death can be exhausting physically and emotionally, but having a clear process and plan in place should make it a little easier. When you are able, make sure to:

  • Security: Change the locks on doors and windows. You don’t know who may have keys to the home and collecting all the shared keys may require a bit of effort.
  • Mail: Get rid of piles of unopened mail or catalogues that could suggest to thieves a property is empty. Contact the post office to find out what paperwork is required and have all mail forwarded.
  • Email: Set up email accounts to reply automatically with an appropriate message if you have access to passwords.
  • Bills: Settle accounts and cancel services and subscriptions where necessary. It may be useful to maintain some utilities, such as electricity until further decisions are made.
  • Documents and cash: Check all drawers and potential hiding places, such as pockets, tins and even shoes, for money or valuables that could be stashed away. At the same time keep an eye out for any important documents.
Make a complete inventory - with photographs - of the home’s contents. This way you can keep track of every item, settle disputes and ensure personal bequests go to the right person.

Pets

A beloved animal may need to be cared for. Firstly, check the will to see if there are instructions regarding the pet. If not, you may need to find the animal a new home. If you are struggling to place the pet, an animal welfare agency may be able to help.

Wash the pet’s bowls and bedding and organise their things to make their transition less stressful. Some animals may be grieving for their owner.

Legal documents

Sifting through papers will be necessary to establish records, proof of ownership, and the relative’s wishes for their belongings. Useful documents to locate include:

  • Will: Find this to ensure efficient settlement of the estate. It will contain instructions regarding the relative’s property.
  • Property titles: Refer to these to settle any issues regarding ownership.  
  • Insurance: Look for any policies regarding life or death cover, and what benefits dependents may be entitled to.
  • Share certificates: Collect these so that shares can be sold or transferred to their new owner.
  • Receipts: Use these to deal with bills or tax issues.
  • Correspondence: Keep a list of friends and relatives who need to be contacted.
  • Personal writing and photos: Save messages and mementoes that may be treasured reminders.

Cleaning

House cleaning after death will be necessary before the home can be sold or used by someone else. Start at the top of a room and work your way to the floor so dust or debris falls and can be collected later. Make sure to clean:

  • Ceilings: Clean away cobwebs in corners, and dust from fans, light fittings and the tops of cupboards and cabinets.
  • Windows: Degrease and polish the glass, wipe sills and paintwork, dust skirtings and examine curtains to see whether they need washing, dry-cleaning or replacing.
  • Walls: Remove dust and stains, watching for any signs of mildew or mould. If you need further information for dealing with mould, read our guide.
  • Furniture: Use a damp cloth to remove dust from wooden surfaces, then clean and polish. Vacuum upholstery thoroughly, and deal with any stains. There are tips for removing upholstery stains here.
  • Cupboards: Clean out all cupboards - upcycle, donate or rehome items.
  • Floors: Vacuum carpets and rugs, sweep floorboards and mop ceramic tiles or linoleum.

You will also need to check appliances, including defrosting the fridge and freezer and disposing of their contents. Kitchens and bathrooms – including cupboards – will also need cleaning.

Personal items

Going through these could take some time, not to mention emotional energy. It could be helpful to divide them into piles:

  • Things to keep
  • Things to throw away
  • Things to sell or donate.

Another pile may be handy for items where ownership is disputed, or you simply can’t decide right now.

Originally published 12 December 2018