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Worth more than memories

You can get a fair, respectful price for items a late relative leaves behind.

March 11, 2004|Sondra Farrell Bazrod | Special to The Times

Television producer Bob Raser and his wife, Caroline, recently faced a situation that many people eventually must confront: what to do with belongings of a late relative that are potentially valuable and, at the very least, a trove of memories.

Raser's late mother had lived in New York state, in an apartment complex that didn't allow estate sales. Even if that were an option, said Raser, who lives in Westlake, the prospect of a public sale was very unappealing.

"I couldn't stand that someone would come in and put a dollar value on all the memories I had of my mother's things," Raser says. "It would have been like picking over my mother's bones."

Raser didn't want to just get rid of everything, as family members sometimes propose. He wanted someone to give a fair, respectful price for individual items. The first potential customer offered $750 for all the furniture and belongings. With his wife's help Raser finally found appraisers to give him a fair deal. They discovered some items were worth much more than they had ever imagined. One ring they thought was costume jewelry was actually platinum and diamond.

Some experts' tips:

Know about the title: "Heirs [should] know how the title of the house is held because this affects whether they have the authority to dispose of the furnishings," says Mike Johnstone of Johnstone Realtors in Los Angeles. Whether or not there's a will, it is important to check with a probate lawyer on the title matter, he says. Realtors can help heirs find out how the title is held but cannot provide legal advice. Many real estate agents can recommend qualified appraisers. The Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. offers referrals for three separate half-hours of advice at no charge. If the matter needs more time, the service will tell you the cost; call (213) 243-1525.

List personal items separately: "People should make a separate list of their personal items but not put them in the will," says Sharon Lenke, a probate lawyer for 23 years. "But you must trust the executor because if it's not written in the will the court has no jurisdiction over what's done with the items. Say in the will you have a separate list and request the executor to distribute according to your wishes."

She advises people to make a video of what they have and make a notation when they get rid of something. "If you have pets, don't forget to mention them in the will because they are personal property."

The advantages of estate sales: Emile Jacobsen and her partners in Handle With Care Estate Sales hold invitation-only sales in the home of the deceased. "We are licensed appraisers," she says. "We sell only complete housefuls." Other estate sale companies also hold sales in the home. Always obtain a referral from a probate lawyer, estate agent or friend who has used the company. "An appraiser should never be the buyer," says Karen Richman, of All Manor of Things Estate Sale Co. Getting two appraisals is recommended.

The advantages of auctions: "[An] auction is better than an estate sale because we have more people in attendance and the items don't need to be sold in one day," says Don Schireson, vice president of Abell Auction Co. of Commerce, which has been in business for 88 years. His company charges a 10% fee for items that sell for more than $3,000 and 20% for items under that amount, but no charge if the items don't sell. There are several auction houses in the Los Angeles area. It's important to find out the company's policy on unsold items before signing a contract.

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