At some point we all may be in a position where we are tasked to organize the estate of a family member or friend who has passed away or can no longer manage their affairs.  Already a difficult time, organizing someone else’s belongings can be very stressful and many people don’t know where to begin. 

In an ideal world we would all organize our belongings before we pass - perhaps in a database like CatalogIt.  We would each have a very clear WIll or Trust that outlines our wishes. We’d take photos of all of our valuables, make lists of what we would like to go where. We would keep all of our receipts for our valuables in one centralized place and have lists to pass on to those organizing our affairs. We would talk to whomever will be tasked with coordinating our estate well in advance so they are prepared for what lies ahead. While ideal, this is not what usually happens. We are generally tasked with organizing and dispersing the unorganized, and the first step is usually the hardest.

In this document, CatalogIt is offering a step by step organizational plan to get you started and through this arduous process - one task at a time. This document is only covering the task of organizing and documenting personal property such as collections, collectables, vintage clothing, etc. This document should not be considered legal or financial advice - please speak to an accountant and lawyer in your state for the legal and tax information before you get started - and throughout the process - to ensure you are following all applicable Federal and State laws regarding organization and dispersal of an estate.

Step One: Breathe and do your research

This process can be overwhelming and taking a moment to think through all that is ahead of you is key. Look for any lists, paperwork, or instructions that your loved one may have left behind. Locate a Will or Trust that would have instructions on how to proceed, with at least some of the material. Does the Estate have a lawyer? Talk to them to find out all the information you can that will help you through this process. 

Are you on a time limit? Do you need to vacate the apartment or home by a certain date? Is there anyone who can help you? Is there a storage unit somewhere or are any collections on loan or in any other locations?

Step Two: Survey the property.

Once you have found all the documentation you need, or discover what documentation you don’t actually have, you are ready to survey the property.  Go room by room, in every closet and drawer and document what you see. With CatalogIt, you can easily create a folder to record this task. Naming your folder something like “Survey” and using the classification “Moment” you can take a quick photo of each room - wall by wall - to quickly document what is there. Name each photo specifically.  

Documenting everything in situ will allow you to go back to the beginning at any time in case there are any questions about where an item might have gone and will help you to make sure you captured information for everything you need to catalog.

Step Three: Cataloging Collections.

Once you have completed your room by room survey, start cataloging individual items. Catalog items that are important, valuable, or collectable. No need to catalog everyday household items, kitchen gadgets, or everyday clothing this way. Remember, this process is for collectables, collections, family heirlooms, vintage clothing, jewelry, artwork, etc. 

There are a number of different ways you can start this process. For example, do you have a list of items going to specific people? Use that list as a starting point. Create a folder called “Gifts” or “Bequests” and document everything on it.  After you catalog these items, move on to items you have receipts for. Or, if you prefer, go room to room and systematically catalog everything in it. Go in order - start at one side of the room and make your way around it. Catalog everything on all the shelves - one shelf at a time. However you decide to do this, be systematic. This will ensure you don’t miss anything. And if you do miss something, don’t worry - you can always go back to it and catalog it later. Even experts can overlook an item on the first pass. There is a lot to look at and it can seem overwhelming - making multiple passes of the same area is helpful to make sure you covered everything you wanted to catalog. 

CatalogIt allows you to catalog items very specifically using authoritative classifications and many specific fields to catalog items you are documenting. It is important to note that while all these fields are available, you do not have to fill everything out. For this purpose, in the interest of time, you may want to only fill in key fields that will help you organize and later disperse the estate. Here are the fields that are key to fill in to ensure you can identify everything:

  1. Take a couple of photos- one of the overall piece, and others of the back or bottom if there are any identifying marks or other important details.
  2. Always assign an entry ID to each item. By creating a unique number, you can easily tag items around the house for identification later. Think of something simple - perhaps the estate owner's initials followed by a sequential number: JT.1, for example. Using the period between the initials and the number will allow you to easily sort the list sequentially.
  3. Title/Name. Give each item a name. If it is an artwork, use the title of the item. If this is another type of object, give it a descriptive title such as “Bentwood Chair.”
  4. Classification. Select a classification that is closest to your object - for this chair select “furniture.”  This way you can easily sort all the furniture in the estate and create lists and reports.
  5. Description. This is a free text field that allows you to include any descriptive information that will help you identify the chair. Include any key information that you think would be helpful in a report - like the materials. 
  6. Location. Where is this? List the room in the house/apartment it is in. If it is in a drawer, list the drawer as well.
  7. Valuation. Do you have the original receipt for this item? Was it appraised at some point? Or do you know an expert who can help you assign a value for this item? This is where you can track the current value as well as the valuation history.
  8. Provenance. If you  happen to know where the object was purchased, include it here. Was this purchased from a specific store or dealer? Or did it belong to Aunt Lou and was passed down through the generations?
  9. Disposition. Use this field to indicate who the item is being left to and when you disperse it, confirm where it went and on what date.

There are many other fields you can use to catalog more specifically, but the above fields are key for this particular process and a good start to help you organize the collections.

Be sure to enter the information you find on any receipts or notes. Take a picture of the receipt or notes and attach them as part of the CatalogIt record. You are able to include as many images, PDF files, and videos in an Entry that you would like so be sure to take pictures of everything you have so it is easily findable in one place. Take pictures of the object from different angles and zoom in on any signature or maker's marks, condition issues, or anything else you find pertinent. Is the object missing a part? Be sure to note that and take a picture documenting what it looked like when you found it. 

There may be subject specialists that you want to send more information to in order to advise you or to gather more information. In that case you may find that cataloging those items in a more comprehensive manner is more helpful. Including the artist, medium, signature, parts, may help your specialist advise you in a more meaningful way. While you should still record the current location and current valuation in CatalogIt, you may not want to share that information in your report. You can easily share only the information you want to share.

Customize properties included in Reports

There may be items you don’t want to catalog individually. For example, are you organizing a large collection of jewelry? Separate it out into groups and take a photo of that group. You can sort by kind- brooches, necklaces, rings, etc. Or type: costume, fine, etc. Individually catalog the particularly valuable items or items that have been specifically left to one individual. 

Step Four: Sorting and Research.

Once the collections are documented, they can be sorted into groups. It is helpful to physically sort items  - put all the heirloom items in one place, the family ephemera in another. Move valuable artwork so it is all together, move the silver and china together as well. However you sort the items, be sure to keep track of where they are in CatalogIt. You can also create as many folders as you would like to keep items sorted in groups. Below is an example of folders created to sort collections by type as well as by who is going to review them. The folders help with your workflow and can help you keep track of everything you are doing. 

Folders allow you to organize your Entries

Think of folders as a project management tool to keep this organization project on track and moving. These folders also aid in sharing information with others - create quick lists and share just the information and images you want. These folders also are an invaluable tool when researching your objects. Creating a folder and creating reports from that folder to send to subject specialists, family members, auction houses, or antique dealers can help you both gather new information for items you don’t know much about and share information with potential recipients of those items. 

With CatalogIt’s print features you can easily create a physical report that you can mail or a PDF that you can email to whomever you want. The recipient of that report can send back information to you about your items that you can quickly and easily add into CatalogIt to ensure your documentation is as complete and correct as it needs to be.  Send images of family photos around to multiple family members and ask them to help you identify people you don’t know. Send a photo of a pressed glass 1930’s punch bowl that you found in the cupboard - while it may not be financially valuable, discovering it was a family member's punchbowl and used in all the family gatherings makes it sentimentally valuable and you may find a home for it. 

While the research of a collection is time consuming, it is key to help you identify and disperse items in the most successful way. You may have found a silver platter that turns out to be historically very significant and valuable - you may be able to sell this item for a nice sum that will help you process the rest of the collection and return to the heirs. 

Step Five: Dispersing

Once everything is organized, and your legal advisor or the estate decision maker indicates it is ok to do so, you can start dispersing the estate. Start with the easy parts - if you have specific instructions for items - take care of those first. Release the items to individuals that were left items specifically. Are there collections to donate to a museum? Do that second.  Release items for sale to the appropriate outlet (based on your research) including auction houses, galleries, or antique dealers. 

It is important to keep track of everything you are doing. Update the locations in CatalogIt to indicate something has been released. Create a location code called “OUT” to indicate it is no longer on the premises and complete the information in the “disposition” expansion panel to keep track of where specifically an item went and when.

Disposition information

Aside from folders, another great way to track the status of something is by using “Tags.” Think of tags as a virtual post-it note letting you know what is happening or what you need to do. These tags can also help you keep closer track of items that have been dispersed. You can create as many tags as you need and attach as many tags to an item as is necessary:

Create and assign Tags

Items can reside in multiple folders with more than one tag:

Add Entry to multiple Folders and assign Tags

Keep in mind, you still may need easy access and the ability to search and sort items from the estate in multiple ways, even after it has been dispersed. This is helpful for tax purposes or if the items are going to auction and you want to update items with the final hammer price or you want to provide more information to a family member after they have received an object.

Step Six: Relax.

You just completed a monumental task. Depending on the size of the estate, it can take you a few months to a few years to fully organize and disperse. This is a lot of work and there is not one right way to do it. Just remember - being organized and systematic can help you tremendously. Using a database like CatalogIt can help you document, research and disperse any estate - large or small - while keeping you organized and on task.

Did this process make you think about your own collections? Are you thinking about what your own family members and friends are going to have to do to organize your estate? Take this time to talk to someone about writing a WIll or creating a Trust. Start organizing now by creating a CatalogIt database to document your collections. Add a family member or close friend as a collaborator, so that the data you’ve added is accessible if something were to happen to you. Using CatalogIt to organize your own collections is a simple way to add peace of mind to you and your heirs for the future.

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