When you’ve been cleaning out estates for over 10 years, you learn that it’s not uncommon to uncover a shocking revelation about a dead relative among their personal belongings. Whether you’re the estate’s executor or an able-bodied grandson discovering secrets in families, you’re the one who must decide how to deal with them. Here are 6 common secrets we find, and what to do next.
1. Forbidden love
Love and lust are common secrets in families. We’ve found love letters tucked into boxes, shoes and gloves. Usually, these are long-ago affairs, though discoveries can reveal recent infidelities. Once, we found photos of a client’s recently deceased father and his secret same-sex lover. The evidence never tells the whole story, which is why it’s important to not jump to conclusions.
2. Identity secrets
We once found documents proving that our client’s grandfather was adopted—a secret that affected multiple branches of the family tree. We’ve found contracts, bank accounts, credit cards and other evidence of people maintaining dual identities. A stack of check stubs might be evidence of secret child-support payments—and the existence of an unknown sibling, cousin or uncle. You might even find evidence of a second family. Identity discoveries can have legal implications, and the existence of an unknown child can affect inheritance.
If you find child pornography, which is illegal, you or whoever is in charge should call the police. If you find girlie mags, skin flicks, sex toys or other adult entertainment, respect privacy as you would with any secrets in families. And while it may seem shocking to you that your grandmother had a robust sex life, others might find the discovery only slightly embarrassing. If you discover these toys in front of Grandma, be an adult and move on.
4. Illegal drugs
We find a lot of marijuana in sock drawers and closets. We occasionally come across harder stuff—cocaine, pills, heroin—as well as dangerous paraphernalia, like needles. Not only do you have to decide whether to tell other family members, but you will also need to safely dispose of the drugs. You should step away and call the authorities if you find anything illegal. Never try to transport illegal drugs, even if you plan to go straight to the authorities. If you get stopped, things might get complicated.
5. Stolen objects
During a house cleanout, we once found a pair of paintings that had been passed down from a long-dead relative. We sent them to an auctioneer, who traced them back to an art museum. They were stolen from the museum during the 1940s. The discovery debunked the family story that the relative was a banker who received the works as loan collateral. Turns out he was an art thief. Luckily, a third party with subject expertise broke the bad news to the family for us.
It’s not uncommon to find money, gold bars and other valuable assets stashed in homes. We once found an Olympic medal buried beneath a pile of stuff. The homeowner had won it throwing javelin decades earlier. Finding a suitcase full of cash can be a pleasant surprise, but just because it’s a happy family secret doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use discretion. Spreading the news among extended family and friends could create hard feelings, and apart from the obvious (keeping it safe) the owner may have had good reason to hide it. If the cash looks suspicious, call the authorities. Dirty money is often traceable and can cause more trouble than it’s worth.
Sharing Secrets in Families
Regardless of what you find or learn about secrets in families, it’s important that you respect the privacy of those involved. Don’t spread gossip or let the news get away from you. This is true even for seemingly harmless or happy discoveries. Here are our guidelines.
- Share information, not shock. Wait until you are calm and rational and have had a chance to consider your options.
- Stick to the facts, not your interpretation. Everyone has a different moral compass, and something that shocks you might seem perfectly acceptable to someone else.
- Choose words wisely. We suggest something like, “I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but I wanted to share it with you.” Ease into the topic and bring it up calmly. Others will likely appreciate your honesty.
- Seek help. Facts are facts, but when they evoke strong emotions, people tend to lash out at the messenger, especially if that person is a family member. A qualified third party, such as a clergy member or therapist, can deliver surprising news with authority and objectivity.
- Stay off social media. You may want to share the cool items you’ve discovered, but that doesn’t mean Grandma wants it out there. There are also identifying codes on many mobile pictures that can help a thief find the item’s location.
As a preventative measure, before you start any cleanout, ask anyone still living in the house to remove anything they—or the deceased—might not want you to find. It will save everyone a lot of embarrassment if Grandma removes Grandpa’s Playboy collection in advance.