What do you do with all the old family photographs when you’re trying to settle an estate?

For over a year now I’ve been working on settling Mom’s estate. One of the first tasks I started with was the collection of Mom’s photo albums and what to do with the old family photos.

Let me give you a little background so you know where I’m coming from. I moved back home in 2011 because I was aware that Mom needed help. (More on my mom here.) As with most children, when they move back home, they bring their “stuff” with them. Some of my stuff fit in my room, some in other places in the house and the rest went into storage. 

Nine years later, with a potential move in the near future and the prospect of having to “show” a house, the clutter of my stuff plus Mom’s had to be weeded through.

The old family photos

The first task in my downsizing process was to tackle the family photos. There are some downsizing people that suggest you not start with photos because it’s too emotional so soon after the passing of a loved one. I found it kind of cathartic reliving the memories that the photos evoked. 

My main reason for starting with the photos, I guess, was practicality. My mother had 12 photo albums. Twelve! She was very adamant that if we ever had a fire or had to leave the house in a hurry those 12 albums were going out the door with her. Taking 12 albums of photos plus my own with me to wherever I end up moving to is not in my plan for the future. Sorry, Mom, but I don’t want to schlep those 12 albums along with all my stuff. 

There were actually more than 12 photo albums. Maybe 10, if not more years ago, I pulled out the oldest albums to go through. You know, the puny 3″ by 2″ black and white photos that were anchored into those little black triangles that detached over time. I wanted to go through those pictures with Mom before she forgot who people were.

Mom and I worked on identifying people in the photos. Those that neither or us recognized and with no notes on them got thrown away. The rest I saved and are now in a bin along with other mementos of Mom and Dad.

multi-task while watching tv

So here’s how I worked my way through those 12 photo albums.

You can sort photos while you watch TV. It does take a while so don’t expect that you’ll go through this quickly. I just went through one album picture by picture. As I pulled out each picture from the plastic sleeve, I sorted it into piles – a throw-away pile, a pile for myself, one for each of my brothers, and one for each of my nieces and my nephew. I wanted to make sure that each niece and nephew had plenty of pictures of their Grammy! 😀💕

how i reduced the amount of family photos

That throw-away pile I referred to earlier – this was my process of elimination for that pile. 

Mom and Dad had taken several group trips and there were many photos from those trips. Most did not have either my mom or my dad in the picture. I threw those out. I do not feel guilty – it wasn’t my trip so they aren’t my memories. Therefore, no reason to keep those photos. (You could, however, hang onto them to celebrate that your mom and dad got to go on a trip of their lifetime to ??? or keep for a photo book of Mom and Dad’s travels.) I hung on to a pic of Mom and Dad in front of the Eiffel Tower. I like knowing that they were able to take a trip overseas and to see such an exciting place. 

Also thrown out were pictures that were dark or didn’t have enough lighting to even tell who was in the picture! Those that were taken from too far away also bit the dust.

There were pictures of old neighbors, former bridge partners of my mom and dad and pictures of parties they had at the house. Sadly, most of the people have passed away. I pulled a couple of them out but the rest I threw out.

Christmas tree pictures went into the garbage pile. I think there was a picture from every year! Since we decorated the tree the same way every year with the addition of 1 or 2 new ornaments, the tree looked the same each year. I kept a few but didn’t see any reason to keep all of those photographs.

The outside scenery shots of snow and fall leaves went into the pile. I think Mom took a picture of the same tree across the street every fall! She really liked the fall colors and this tree looks especially nice in the fall. (I did keep one of those!) As for the snow, how many pictures of snow on the railing of the back deck do you need! Sure, the blizzard of ’78 photos I’ll keep but the rest of the pictures of the snow on the driveway and back deck can go out the door! I do not want the memories of shoveling snow! 

I did hang on to the pictures of the house and the yard that showed the change over time and what the flower beds look like in the spring. I found it very interesting to see how much the house and yard have changed over my lifetime of living in the house.

Tips for how to sort old family photos

Get my free checklist for sorting photos. 

the end result

I managed to get the 12 albums down to 2 photo boxes. Not bad. That’s so much more manageable and there are still plenty of photos that I can look back on and relive those memories of my younger days and laugh at the hairdos and clothing styles! I still have photos of Mom and Dad that mean the most to me.

Rather than putting the photos back into multiple photo albums, I decided to store them chronologically in photo boxes like the ones below or like this one at Hobby Lobby. Ordering them by year makes more sense to me but you can order your photos by theme, event, person or era. I like the photo boxes because they hold more and take up less space than the albums. 

Marie Kondo suggests that you hold the photo in your hand and ask yourself if it sparks joy in your heart. Well, that’s basically what I did when I sorted the family photos. If I had an emotional reaction to the photo, I kept it. 

cold and callous or practical?

My process of downsizing the collection of photos might seem cold and unfeeling to some of you but sometimes practicality needs to rule. Remember, you are downsizing, which means “to reduce in number, cut back” and that is what I did. I reduced the number of photos to hang on to yet I still have a wonderful collection of family memories.

magnetic albums

By the way, this is a good time to get those photographs out of the old magnetic kind of albums. You know, the kind that you just pull back the clear page and place the photo down on the page that seems to be a little sticky. I found that photos kept in that kind of album yellowed over time to the point where some were unrecognizable. If you have any of these don’t even hesitate – take your pictures out of those albums and throw those albums out.

Old family Photo albums

Do i regret throwing out the family photos?

No. I don’t regret throwing out all those family pictures. What I do regret is that I didn’t go over those oldest photo albums a long time ago with Mom long before her memory became wonky. I feel like I missed out on a lot of family history. 

alternatives to photo albums

If you’re squeamish about throwing out the old photos there are alternatives. You can send your photos out to businesses that will digitize them for you. If you have lots of time, you can scan or upload your photos to a jump drive or to cloud storage. Local historical societies might like your really old photographs. 

Please comment below if you’ve had to sort through old family photos after a loved one passes. How did it go? Feel free to add any tips or suggestions that you would pass on to others.