Organizing an Estate Using CatalogIt

Joy Tahan Ruddell

Museum & Collections Consultant
Photo courtesy of JTR Collections Management

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 and we would each have a very clear Will or Trust that outlines our wishes. While ideal, this does not always happen. We are often tasked with organizing and dispersing the unorganized and this is not an easy task.


As a collections consultant, I have a ton of experience organizing and cataloging un-organized and un-documented collections. Even with all my experience, I get stressed when working with a loved one’s estate - especially when I am also sentimental about the belongings.  Having a distinct plan and following specific steps can help you get through this otherwise difficult project.


Walking into the apartment of a good friend who just passed away, and armed with only my laptop and iPhone, I got started on the daunting task of organizing over 50 years of collecting.  I used CatalogIt for this project - every step of the way.  

I followed very simple steps:


Step 1: Working with the Trustee of the Estate, I looked for lists, receipts, handwritten notes, and any documentation that would help me along the way. I organized and compiled all I found, and armed with my iPhone, I moved on to step 2.


Step 2: Using my iPhone and the “Moment” classification in CatalogIt, I took photos of every inch of the apartment - every wall, closet, drawer, nook, and cranny. I used these photos to document everything that I deemed “collectable.”  I actually referred back to these photos many times during this project to remind me of all the details that I needed to remember when working on this when I got home.

Step 3: Going room to room, in a very consistent order, I cataloged everything. Using CatalogIt, I snapped a photo, gave a quick name and description using my phone and later matched up the receipts and notes I was lucky enough to have found and used that info to catalog further on my laptop. As I matched up receipts and lists to the actual object, I photographed them and added them to the entry as well. I later printed out these records using the “label” report format and taped the labels next to the actual item so that others could also easily identify them.


Step 4: After everything was cataloged, I worked with the Trustee to sort the objects by type and by which expert we were going to have review them. I moved all the baskets to one area, all the framed artwork to another area, and all the jewelry and watches to yet another. I made sure to move the label I printed out for each item with them. Once everything was sorted, it was easier to research and share by group.


Step 5: Once we completed the above steps, the Trustee of the estate and I began dispersing the collections. All the research and organization helped us be sure we were following our friend’s final wishes while doing what was best for the estate.


Step 6: Only once all the above steps are completed, were we able to relax and have a toast to our good friend and know that we did all we could to take care of his legacy.


Please visit MasterIt to view the full article with the step by step organizational plan* to get you started and through this arduous process. 

*These articles cover 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.

About the Author

Joy Tahan Ruddell

Museum & Collections Consultant

Joy Tahan Ruddell has over twenty-five years of collections and registration experience.  Prior to independent consulting, Joy coordinated the registration department at a large California museum which included insurance, loans, acquisitions, collections access and research, policy and procedure development and management, and intellectual property management. Working with staff museum-wide she developed programs that helped the community engage with collections. Joy has extensive experience with major collections projects including: inventories, collections moves, project management, acquisition and deaccession activities, NAGPRA projects, grant writing, insurance and risk management, and loan processing and organization. She specializes in helping museums build capacity through creative problem solving and determining scalable solutions. Extensive knowledge and advanced understanding of national standards allows her to assist with virtually any collections conundrum. In her current position at CatalogIt, Joy works with museum associations to offer support for the hard work they do assisting museums of all types and sizes  and coordinates with the Co-Founders of CatalogIt to ensure the product stays up to date with all current museum professional practices.