You’re cleaning out your parents’ house, and family members have generously volunteered to help. Now what? Follow our 12 tips to avoid common pitfalls:

1) Discourage more than four volunteers

It's great when family members are eager when cleaning out a parents’ house, but a lot of help means a lot of people to manage. We advise no more than four volunteers at a time to assist with the clean-up. Four people is enough to cover every corner of the room, so you can clearly see what everyone is doing at once. But it’s not so many that leading becomes overwhelming at an already vulnerable and emotional time.

Some people may feel hurt or left out of the process if you decline their offer to help. Try asking them to assist with another task, like sending thank you notes for flowers or food, or keeping note of who has called with condolences.

2) Designate a clear leader

Having more than one person in charge will only complicate the process. If you’re reading this post, it’s likely that you’re already the natural leader. If you want to be the leader, make sure you speak up. If more than one person asks to be the leader, use a fair tie-breaker activity like pulling straws to determine who will manage the process.

3) Instruct all volunteers to stay in the same room

You can't effectively manage people who are walking all over the place! Make certain everyone stays in the same room at all times. Not only will keeping people in the same room make it easier for you to know what is going on, it is likely to prevent arguments and accusations over missing items in the estate.

4) Set a clear goals and rules

Make a realistic daily goal, like cleaning one room per day. Even if the room doesn't get completely finished, we guarantee you'll get more done with goals than without any sort of direction. And stick to them! Be consistent with any rules that are set.

For example, if someone wants to go grab a stack of photographs in another room to keep similar items together, remind everyone that the “one room at a time” rule will maintain order and allow for visible progress at the end of the day.

5) Ask non-compliant family members to leave

If everyone else agrees with the rules, yet there is one resistant family member holding everyone else up, politely but firmly ask them to leave. Yes, it may be awkward. But removing someone who is wasting time will save everyone from mental drainage, and it saves you money. Remember, the quicker the house is cleaned out, the quicker it can be listed on the market.

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6) Follow the will

To handle family members who are putting claims on items, follow what the will explicitly states. Your mother may have promised an item to your cousin, but if it is not expressly written in the will, then it is not your cousin's to claim.

No will? Consider using estate division software like FairSplit to fairly divide assets. Or use one of our DIY options.

7) Limit arguments and debates

With the combination of grief and stress, it's understandable why arguments happen while cleaning out your parents’ house. If any bickering lasts longer than five minutes, stop work immediately. Arguing not only delays the cleaning process, but can strain your family's relationship during a time you need them the most. Agree to take a brief break to cool off—and perhaps grab lunch if an empty stomach is fueling the bickering--then return to work when you feel calmer and refreshed. It will keep the whole family focused on the goal!

8) Schedule regular breaks

An estate clean-up is no ordinary job; it takes a physical and emotional toll. Though you and your family may be on a time crunch, separating yourself from the stuff is important, even for just a few minutes. Reconnect with your family during decompression breaks to recount happy memories and keep the energy positive.

9) Create a legacy list

A legacy list is a checklist of items you and your family want to search for during the clean-up. Maybe you're looking for your grandmother's wedding album, and your sibling wants to find your grandfather's hand-carved duck collection. Make a list, photocopy it, and tape one on the wall of every room. Not only will it keep you on track, but will allow for little moments of joy during the day. Make it a team effort and - briefly - celebrate each time an item on the list is found.

10) Share your memories and stories

When you find something that evokes a happy memory, say, "I remember when..." and share the stories you associate with what was found. Maybe you found your dad's favorite baseball shirt--tell your family a funny or heartwarming story about a memorable game. Connecting the “stuff” with memories of your parents reminds everyone why they’re there, and shifts the focus from monetary value.

11) Go out to celebrate

At the end of the day, do something fun, like going out to dinner or eating ice cream. If you are really tired or down, we suggest bowling (it’s really hard to stay bummed when you’re bowling). Doing something fun with family volunteers following a day of cleaning out your parents’ house reminds everyone that you will all get through these difficult situations together.

12) Say "thank you"

These are the most underutilized words during the cleanup process! Even if everyone has equal responsibility, thank anyone involved with the cleanup. Simply hearing a "thank you" shows someone their work is truly appreciated and gives someone continued motivation to work, even while experiencing grief. Letting your family know you appreciate them and their help throughout the entire process – even when it's tense - will make cleaning out a parent’s house a little bit easier.


At Wayforth we work with families in transition. We can empty an entire house within days, sorting what items to keep, sell, donate, and discard. Our employees pack and move everything, then prepare the house for sale. Call us for a free consultation.

Our advice is based on our experience cleaning out and settling estates for our clients. Each project is different, and each state's laws are different. We always recommend that you consult personally with experts about your particular situation before making any important decisions.