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In the News

Now what? Professional organizers help with the preparation, aftermath of death

By Patricia Murphy, Triblocal.com, July 3, 2008

Ed Sarlo was a man who liked to hold on to things.

Perhaps the habit was a vestige of his World War II generation. Perhaps it was because he never moved much.

But the reason why mattered little to Sarlo's children when he passed away in February 2007, and it became their responsibility to sort through the memorabilia, letters and mountains of photographs their father had amassed in his Lombard home throughout the years.

"What prompted me to [tackle his belongings] was that my sister was moving out of the house. She lived with him for 25 years and then for the last 12, he lived in a separate apartment nearby," said Lombard's Vicki Grant, Sarlo's daughter. "My sister started going through the house and found it overwhelming."


Grant's friend, professional organizer and owner of Hire Order, Jeannie Triezenberg of Naperville, offered to assist with the time consuming and emotionally demanding process. Triezenberg had lent a hand in similar situations, in one instance helping a terminally ill woman ensure that her book collection would find its way to Wheaton College following her death.

"Jeannie kept saying 'I'll help you with it' and that was the push I needed," Grant said. "She put things in perspective and she was someone who was there and holding me accountable. We said let's meet every Monday and the first Monday came and I was like, 'if you can't make it...'"

But Triezenberg could make it and together the women cleaned out a home filled with a lifetime's worth of possessions.

The Business of Estate Organization


Most professional organizers have their minds on clogged closets and cluttered kitchens when they enter the field, but helping one prepare for life's most significant transition or assisting people, reeling from a recent death, sort through the effects that were their loved one's life has become a sizable niche market in recent years.

Pioneering the industry was Jeanne K. Smith, owner of the Palo Alto, California-based business, Exit Stage Right.

"I started my business 16 years ago, and no one was doing this kind of work at that time," Smith said. "At that time, I didn't even know I was a professional organizer."

It was her first husband who opened Smith's eyes to the need for this service. Decades ago, the night before her husband's scheduled hernia operation, the couple sat down to discuss everything from investments to his wish to be cremated.

While out visiting their attorney to hand over some documents later that night, Smith's husband was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

"I followed [my husband's] list to the nth degree, and I just felt so loved and cared for," she said.

Then other family members and close friends began passing away, and Smith was again left to sort through the things that needed sorting through. Soon others were seeking out her knowledge when the same happened to them.

Today Smith takes on about 40 clients a year, has taught 85 professional organizers all they need to know about estate organization and has plans for several more training seminars across the country, including one in the Chicago area. Much of her work centers on locating and arranging paperwork – legal certificates, life insurance forms, financial statements and the like – but Smith also shoulders the more conventional tasks that come with the job like sorting, systemizing and discarding belongings.

"The need is growing exponentially because the baby boomers are growing exponentially," she said. "You have millions of baby boomers turning 60, and they're starting to lose their associates, spouses and aging parents."

The subject of death is easy enough to avoid and the excuses to do so are endless – it's morbid, it's bad luck, it won't happen for years – but those caught unprepared often find the situation unbelievably difficult.

Sarlo's papers were up-to-date and in a safe place at the time of his death, but Smith estimated that 70 percent of Americans do not have their affairs in order. If someone hasn't attended to this business before their mid-70s, it usually doesn't happen until after they've passed on, she said.

Smith ticked off a number of matters people, most often adult children, neglect to wrap up before a death and then struggle with in the wake of their grief.

"Was the person a veteran?," she asked. "There are veterans benefits at the time of death, but you're going to need discharge papers. What are the passwords for the computer? Do you have the voicemail code for the phone because you need to change the outgoing message. Is the organ or body donation form signed and where is it? Where are the bank accounts and are there direct deposits and direct withdrawals? Where are the most important documents like birth and marriage certificates?"

"Most people don't have a clue what they're in for when they're named executor, that they're going to have to give up a better part of a year," she added.

To this end, Smith has created "Exit Strategies: A Plan and Place for Your Estate Information," an interactive software program or workbook that allows users to record all of their pertinent information and future wishes. The resource is indispensable in the event of death, but also proves its worth in cases of incapacity or natural disaster, Smith said.

Unearthing Hidden Treasures

The years have shown Smith a lot of sadness, both her own and that of others, but it has also brought many unexpected surprises. There was the diamond ring in the Band-Aid box, significant sums of money buried beneath a rug and a whopping $13,000 lodged inexplicably in a container filled with cat cremains.

Cleaning out her father's estate, Grant was delighted by some of her finds.

"I found some really fun stuff like pictures from high school and pictures of old boyfriends," she said.

Grant found photographs of her uncle when he was boy, which she then passed on to his son, a man who had never really known his father, and tenderly worded letters from her grandmother to her sons while they served in the Armed Forces.

But the most exciting discovery of them all was a box of old photographs and miscellaneous items once belonging to Carol Lawrence, a former Broadway star and wife to the late Robert Goulet. A longtime friend of Sarlo's had lived in Lawrence's childhood Melrose Park home and had given him the items.

Resurrected were pictures of the dark-haired beauty with Dean Martin, John Kennedy and Goulet as well as Lawrence's high school diploma from Proviso Township High School. Grant intends to hand over the items to the singer when she performs at Ravinia in September.

"This is what my dad would have wanted," Grant said. "In a way, I think he kind of pushed me into this."

To see items from Grant's Carol Lawrence collection, click here.


Article available on line by clicking here.
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