S1:E28 | Do You Know What You Own?

Guest Speaker(s): Sonya Weisshappel, Founder and CEO, Seriatim, Inc.
Host: Thomasina Williams, Founder, Sankofa Legacy Advisors


Join us on this insightful podcast as we delve into the essential steps of preparing your personal property for your future estate with expert advice from a Professional Organizer and Move Manager. Whether you’re planning ahead or assisting a loved one, understanding the intricacies of estate organization is crucial.

In this episode, our expert shares invaluable insights on how to navigate this process seamlessly. We explore essential talking points including:

  1. Inventory Assessment: Discover the importance of knowing what you own and ensuring the currency of your appraisals. Learn how proper documentation and valuation can streamline the estate planning process.
  2. Emotional Prioritization: Gain practical advice on where to begin amidst the emotional attachment to personal belongings. Explore strategies for identifying items of sentimental value and understanding their worth beyond monetary value.
  3. Legal Considerations: Unravel the legal aspects of property distribution, from gifting cherished items to loved ones, to making decisions on items to sell, donate, or discard. Understand the significance of legal frameworks in ensuring a smooth and fair distribution process.

About Our Speaker:

Sonya grew up in New York City where she started her organizing company, Seriatim, in 1999. Proudly dyslexic, Sonya founded her business in order to avoid writing a resume and now, almost two decades later, she and her Seriatim team have earned themselves a reputation as consummate Chaos Whisperers. In 2017, Sonya became the first organizer to be accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program. She is currently President of the New York Council of Relocation Professionals (NYCORP). In her spare time, Sonya organizes her husband, three children, and rescue dog, Finn.

The website is www.seriatim.net 

THOMASINA: Welcome to the Purposeful Planning Institute Podcast. My name is Thomasina Williams. My work is all about leadership development for enterprising families. I help families develop more connected and capable leaders who are engaged stewards of both their financial and their non-financial resources so they can build legacies of chance generational success. I’m really excited to be hosting today’s episode. I have been a member of the PPI board since January 2020, and have been a guest on the podcast but this is my first time to actually host and I’m super excited to have you all join us for today’s episode and our special guest who is Sonya Weisshappel. Sonya is the founder and CEO of Seriatim, Inc. Seriatim is a professional organizing and inventory management firm. As a professional organizer and move manager, Sonya and her team helped bring harmony to your home, your business, and your life. Welcome to the podcast, Sonya.

SONYA:  Oh, thank you. I’m so glad to be here and to share your first day apart hosting. That’s amazing. Thank you.

THOMASINA: Thank you for being with us. I’m really excited to have this conversation with you. When people think about distributing their assets, more often than not, they focus on the big things. “We’ve got to deal with the business, and the stock, and the jewelry, and maybe the art and the cars.” Things that have significant financial value. And while the house is probably a part of that (or homes, should I say for many people), what we don’t often think about as much are the contents of the home of the apartment or the multiple homes and multiple apartments. We tend to overlook those smaller things that may have significant financial value, but they oftentimes have more emotional value than they do financial value. And then of course, there’s the tons and tons of paper that somehow we’ve managed to acquire, even though lots of folks are trying to do everything electronically these days. I was excited to have this conversation with you, Sonya, because as I mentioned to you in our prep session, I’m blessed to say that my mom who is 90 years old (she’ll be 91 in a couple of months) is still with us on this side of the veil, and she’s in great hill. She drives and she takes care of herself. She’s also a classic fashionista. She has always been more into fashion and clothing and dressing that I have. She is a senior woman in her church. So she has all these what I call church lady hats. I could literally open a small US retail clothing store just out of her closet, the hats, the purses, the shoes. This shows that she loves collecting things. I’ve been trying to get her to downsize for years, but she still insists on living in the four bedroom, two and a half bath house that I grew up in. And she’s got collections of ceramic clowns, she has music boxes, she’s got all kinds of stuff, and she keeps buying stuff. So that’s why I was so excited to connect with you because at some point, my brothers and I are going to have to deal with all this stuff. And I just don’t know where to even start. So I’d love it if you could start off by sharing with us and our audience what our founder, John A. Warnick, described as your Purposeful Professional Odyssey. How is it that you came to for the last 25 years be a professional organizer, and manager of all kinds of personal things that people have acquired? How did you come into providing this kind of a service for people?

SONYA: First of all, amazing story and what a blessing for you and your siblings to have. Family is how I came into this business. I was blessed with my mom and her siblings. She has two sisters and a brother, and I’m an only child. And my mom’s two sisters have no children. So I’m an active only child of three mothers. That’s like a three headed monster at some time but with the best intentions. My mom’s oldest sister was a professional architect, interior designer. She did very high end homes and hotels around the country, and my mom ran her office doing all of the logistics and the coordination. And that was my after school. And I literally grew up from preschool until middle school in that office on weekends and evenings, learning, listening, going on odd job sites. Their other sister is a geriatric nurse, and so when I wasn’t with them, I was with her. And that meant going to and from lots of people’s homes because in the old days, the doctor would come to you and you would go and she would do their blood work and check the refrigerator and make sure that there was ample food and the lights working and all those little bits. And I would sit on the sofa and look around at the clown collections, random things that people had in their home. So ever since I was a little girl, I visited a lot of people’s homes, or was in very fancy homes, or in very pretty hotels, but both as a guest and behind the scenes in all circumstances. And so when my father was job-transferred in the 80s from San Francisco to New York, we moved and unfortunately, he got terminally ill and passed soon after. But those grants of being job-transferred, having grown up with geriatric health, growing up with interior design brought me to a place where I just thought everyone knew how to do that, that was my naivete of people. Everyone knows how to organize and take care of stuff. And then you start to realize people will say little comments of, “I’m really overwhelmed. I don’t know how to do this. I have too much or I have to move.” And then my mom joined the Corcoran Group when we came to New York. And my father had passed and Barbara Corcoran had just started the Corcoran Group, and there were about 20 brokers at that time.

THOMASINA: For our listening audience, Barbara Corcoran is a..?

SONYA: Top real estate agent who started Corcoran Group and has gone on to sell Corcoran too, and now appears on Shark Tank, and does all sorts of interesting things. But she’s a friend and person that I grew up with. I had the luxury of kind of getting to know her as an entrepreneur and to me, strong women and business owners was just kind of a norm. And so I took all of that and I created a company, because I struggled with writing a resume and I avoided 100% getting a job and instead I created a company. And so here we are all these years later.

THOMASINA:  Good for you, that is entrepreneurial spirit. You mentioned being overwhelmed because candidly, that’s a lot of what I feel when I go and look at my mom’s closet, and her coin collections, and her clown collection, and the antique clocks, and this and that. It’s like, “Oh my god, what are we going to do with all of this stuff?” And so talk to us a little bit about how you approach helping people deal with the overwhelmed. I loved earlier when we were prepping you. You said that one of the ways that you’d like to do that is to help people think about it as really a treasure hunt. I thought, “What a fantastic reframe.” From overwhelmed to, “Let’s see what kind of goodies we can find here.” Talk to us a little bit about your process and how you help people sort of reframe their mindset even about what the undertaking is.

SONYA: It is no joke, it is very overwhelming. God forbid, you’re faced with the loss of a loved one. You’re having a lot of emotions, good and bad, perhaps that are coming up, and then you’ve got to perform, you’ve got to take care of things. And it’s not always the best time for people to deal, but the way we deal with overwhelm is we come in, and I would suggest  that even for family members getting together trying to take apart a loved one’s home. And to stop the overwhelm feeling is you start in a corner, and you start to match like items. So if you have two lamps in the room, unplug them and put them next to each other. If you have 10 pillows on each chair, group them and make a stack of pillows. The same with the clocks and the vases and if you open a closet and you look in that closet, there’s often plastic wrap from the dry cleaning and mitt and hangers with nothing on it, all that is trash and you start to gather up, you take away the trash, and you start to gather like items. So that would be in the closet, that would be putting all the pants together, putting all the dresses together, putting all the sweaters together. Some people live with all that together, and then you lean into one more step, and that’s the treasure hunt, then it becomes okay. Even if someone’s living, and you just want to start the downsizing process, which of course is ideal in the Purposeful Planning community, we advocate actually planning for these things. And that means perhaps doing these treasure hunts, looking in the closet, looking in the places that there are collections, and saying to yourself, “Okay, if I had to move all of this tomorrow, are there any things here that I must take?” Or, “Is there anything here that I really don’t care about?” And if you start to reframe that, you don’t think about, “Am I going to sell it? Am I going to donate it? Is it recyclable? Does someone else want it?” Forget that. Just, “Do I love it? Do I care about it? Does my brother love it? Does my sister love it?” Deal with all of that first, start tagging or making lists, and then everything else becomes up for grabs. And that leads to people often making decisions based on money. You mentioned it as you opened in a way they make decisions based on the big ticket items, but when the dust settles and that person is downsized or the estate is cleared up, it’s not the big ticket items that you pined for, it’s that, “Hmm.  I’m really missing looking at that little trinket that was always on mom’s desk. I didn’t think I cared about it but in hindsight, I’m missing that paperweight.” It is because those are the treasures, those are the little things that talk to you and remind you, “My mom took a cutting board, a boring wooden cutting board that doesn’t even lay flat on the surface of the kitchen counter but it’s her favorite cutting board because it was her great aunts cutting board.” I’m like, “Mom, every time you go to cut something, the board wiggles on the counter.” She goes, “It’s Aunt Sales. I loved her and I love my cutting board. And if I was looking at the series of cutting boards, that would be on the chopping block literally to get rid of cutting it big. And it’s not necessary, but it’s because it doesn’t mean the same thing to me.” But she’ll keep it because that’s a treasure to her for multiple reasons. And not knowing the value of things. There are two values:financial and emotional, which you alluded to earlier.

THOMASINA:  Yes, absolutely. And being clear about the distinction between those things of what is emotional value that has memories associated with it, perhaps the particular person, maybe, who gifted it to you, and then thinking about the financial things. So as I think about your process, then your exploration, I guess, is the first phase where you’re sorting out what’s there and cracking trying to create some sort of an inventory for it. It’s one thing to be clear about what is emotionally important to you. How do you address the issue of financial value and where does Getting appraisals come into the process?

SONYA: I’m so glad you brought up appraisals. This is one of those one-on-one, if you leave with one nugget from this podcast, having appraisals that are within three to five years, call it for consistency sake, you have to have that. If you do not have appraisals that are within that four year range, and they’re, let’s say, two decades old, you guys will not have an appraisal. The only thing you have is a description, you don’t actually have what the value is. So, appraisals are a must. And that is a planning tool. The Appraisers Association of America has appraisers all over the country. Typically, you start with a generalist, what how we work with appraisers is that appraisers want to walk into a home typically, and have had the things that people are concerned about out. They don’t always want to be rummaging through the backs of closets, or putting together the silver sets. You’re paying them, sometimes very significant money per hour. We’re not insignificant, but we’re often half of what an appraiser is per hour. So it makes sense to use that labor to prepare for them, let them come through, do their thorough job, and walk out and maybe they find something. Setting the baseline with proper appraisals is the best way to start planning. But what we normally do, appraisers are going to come in for tax purposes often will say, we’re only going to look at things that are above $500 an item or thousand or 5,000, depending on the structure of the estate. But that leaves a lot of things that the appraiser is supposed to be blind to in an estate scenario. So if you are purposefully planning in advance, you are going to look at the hole. And you’re going to figure out the true value. Because maybe your client is not properly insured. If you don’t look at the hole, down to everything that’s worth $100 and above, you may find out that your insurance is only covering a million dollars, but you actually have $3 million worth of property and given the weather calamities we’ve had and issues in these last years and that were all over the country, things happen and you want to make sure that you are covered, purposefully planned for those type of scenarios and be calm because it’s just protecting what’s there. 

THOMASINA: Righ, absolutely. So for those of us who are going to be purposeful in planning, but have not done appraisals, yet — we haven’t really done anything — but being prompted by listening to you on this podcast are going to take some action, share with our audience what the full suite of your services are. Could I call you and ask you to find the appraisal for my mom’s cloud collection? Or do I need to have certain things in place before I reach out to you?

SONYA: I think that what Seriatim brings to the surface to the table is unique. There are many professional organizers, and senior move managers across the country, and both NAPO and NASMM are great resources for this community to know.

THOMASINA: Can you share with us what those acronyms are, NAPO and NASMM?

SONYA: NAPO and that’s the National Association of Professional Organizers, and then NASMM is for National Association Senior Move Managers. And both of those communities offer amazing resources for people who care. What sets Seriatim apart from a lot of the other companies is that we have worked with the trusted advisors to become not only an organizer and a logistical manager, but also someone who really cares about the inventory and putting values to it to plan. And that unique process is that you can hire an organizer to get everything out and sorted, and then an inventory company to come in and inventory, and then you would bring the appraisers in, when you know what’s actually there.

THOMASINA: But Seriatim can do all of that. You can go in, and kind of sorta, get everything organized, then inventory it, and also can help me identify an appraiser to do the actual appraisal.

SONYA: Yes, and tie those appraisals back to your original inventory. And that in that process, which perhaps not in your mom’s case, but in most people’s scenarios, when you do that review of what you own, you often realize, “Hmm, I have too many of those. I have 20 Black pairs of pants. Five is good.” Or, “That skirt doesn’t fit or that hat has a little dent, and I’m not interested in that one anymore.” Or, “The colors are off and you start to want to let them go.” But you don’t want to put it in the rubbish. And if you don’t have a friend or family member to give it to, then you’re left asking, “Is it valuable enough to sell?” And then there are a myriad of ways to do that. And then, “Are you donating it?” And if you’re donating it, you have to put a value to it. So it needs to kind of know it goes back to that. And in the unfortunate circumstance of an estate and unplanned estate, there with no values and no appraisals. People delay dealing with the estate, often because they can’t make a decision of whether or not to keep the lamp or the sofa because they don’t actually know what the values of them are. And they say, “Well, if it’s worth this, maybe I should keep it,” and it’s a numbers game. How much will it cost you to move it, store it, place it , and ensure it yourself? Is it worth it or should you just let it go and then put that value in your deduction? But you have to know the right value to deduct. 

THOMASINA: Exactly. So it does sound like it’s a lot more complicated than one might think. Off the top of your head. So I’m curious, you provide this service for people who are simply maybe moving across the country, or people who are moving to a different home. They’re downsizing, perhaps, as well as providing this service in the context of winding up estates. So is it fair to say then that your clients are both professionals, like members of the Purposeful Planning Institute, as well as families who would be the clients of our members?

SONYA: Very fair, and this service is actually for all of us. I believe that everyone should know what they own baseline. And then your loved ones should know what they own because if you know what you own, and you put values to it, you may say, “I don’t have a lot,” but that doesn’t mean in the, God forbid, that like in Maui, you have no home at the end of the day kind of thing, that you have you have work to do to make a claim. It would be the same if someone, God forbid, had a heart attack and didn’t come home. Their estate would need to be solved. You want to preemptively manage that. And often people have wishes of who they want things to go to. And if they didn’t figure that out in advance, that’s very hard to implement for those who are left to implement. So can I go back to the services because I did not answer that question?

THOMASINA: Oh, please.

SONYA: So there’s relocation management, paper management, clutter control, and inventory. Those are our four main buckets of services. Within relocation, there’s on-site prep going through every closet and drawer and sorting it out. All the coordination that happens behind the scenes. Then there’s the supervising of the movers. And then often, there’s the receiving of the goods somewhere else, and the unpacking. So if you’ve gone from a big home into a small one. It’s not like, “See you!” And you’re left with 500 boxes, and you’re trying to figure out what to do. Your 500 boxes disappear, and then you’re in your new life.

THOMASINA: You’re gonna help to keep it organized once it gets to the new place?

SONYA: Yes. Keep it organized and make decisions based on where you’re going. So we often visit the new site, if possible, or look at floor plans, or FaceTime someone who’s there to figure out, “Okay, that dresser that you had in this space will actually fit in that new space and we can use it this way.” So that’s relocation, paper and clutter are people who are staying put but living with a lot of overwhelm with their objects or their two dimensional objects, their photos and their documents. And as you alluded to, most people are thinking of going digital, but they don’t go digital completely. They print a lot of things or there’s a redundancy. We get hired by many companies to come in and sort through their files and create archives of files for passing off when a second generation or multiple generation business is succeeding to the next person, because there’s always a lot of mess. And there’s a lot when there’s a lot of change, regardless of whether or not it’s personal or professional. There’s always chaos around that. And that chaos shows up in paper and tangible items. And then the force-chaos come up when they have to move. And you have to take it all with you in some way, shape, or form. So that’s why we do that myriad of suites of services. And the inventory for us is a unique selling proposition. First of all, I’m dyslexic and the only way I could manage my team, for myself, was for them to take pictures of everything that was there because if I wasn’t there, but I saw it, I could manage it with a client. And so I developed a process in our services that helped me manage as a business owner, despite what I felt was my disability. And when I went through the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program — which is actually how you and I met through a girlfriend that I met through that program — they taught me that that service is actually of value and should come out of being something we just do as our standard operating procedure, but we should also sell that. And in the last five years, we’ve put it out as a service. And it has brought us business with trust departments of the banks, with law firms, with the family offices, with the insurance companies, and a myriad of attorney-type professions who need to know what the client owns in order to do their job.

THOMASINA: So that is fascinating. You’re doing the inventory, as you say, because that’s where the estate planners and the valuation people need to know what they even need to be looking at. That’s very interesting. I had not thought about generational transitions in a business. The senior person who founded that business 30 years ago, they have accumulated lots of things like paper as well as trophies and who knows what else. So you actually provide a service for businesses in that regard as well. It’s not only limited to personal homes. 

SONYA: No, because a lot of a lot of the homes we work in are the size of a small business. They have staff or they have a lot of movement with people and things. There are many little pots of life, a community, and when you enter into the professional world, it’s really the same. It’s a CEO, and a suite of people around it. And then the ripples of the organization. I’m not talking about going and working at IBM, I’m talking about family run multigenerational privately held companies, because they have the same feeling of being small or as homes, not necessarily small but homes.

THOMASINA: We call them enterprises, lots of moving parts to this one ecosystem. 

SONYA: Yes, I call them complex lives.

THOMASINA: [laughs] Yeah, that would fit.

SONYA: Yeah, because they’re not all the same. Some are the Warren Buffett type who don’t want to put their wealth into fine art, necessarily, and there are others whose wealth was the acquisition of old art, and they own museum wings. And then there’s others who put their money into their clothing and their handbags and their shoes, and others who just buy real estate. 

THOMASINA: So you cover the waterfront, whatever they need, when it involves dealing with the personal assets, whether they are simply relocating to a different home or maybe even buying a new home, whether they are downsizing, whether there is an estate that needs to be wound up, or a business that’s going through a generational transition.

SONYA: Exactly, because when the business is doing a succession or merger and acquisition, it’s like a retirement downsize. When the family says, “I want to move closer to the grandkids,” that means we’re selling our home, we’re deacqusitioning a bunch of items, and we’ve got to logistically get somewhere else. And we surely don’t know how to begin. We don’t know what vendors to pull in. We don’t know who to trust. We don’t know what the timeline should be. Some people come to me and I just answered the phone Monday for someone who says, “My mom passed away and I’ve got a 12-room apartment that’s been sold. And I need to have it empty by September 1.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s really not purposely planned.” That’s not a good scenario and that’s not ideal. That level of anxiety and stress, it’s doable, but it’s not fun for anyone. And it doesn’t need to be that way.

THOMASINA: And if, perchance whether people want to be more proactive, or they have not been proactive, let’s say that you are based in New York, but let’s say the person who needs the services is in Utah, what is the geographic scope of where you work with clients, whether they be family members directly, or professional advisors to families?

SONYA: We work across the country, and I have a staff of about 20 and a handful of them travel. So what happens is our intake through the website, through the Contact Us at seriatim.net. In Contact Us, people put in, “I have a project or I need something,” we then have a conversation. We do a lot of things by phone, or by zoom. We want to touch them and understand what it is that they really need to touch the scenario that they’re talking about, because there’s a lot of nuances to it. And then some projects we don’t take. So we whittle out whether or not we’re a good fit, and if we’re not a good fit, we try to get them to the better fit, that’s for them. But if it’s a perfect fit, we will FaceTime and look at the project, give them a price, walk through the timeline and the budget. And then we will dispatch a crew and show up, and have the vendors all lined up. We do that with a lot of work with the banks. Often in the trust departments of banks call us in because when they have an estate to clear out, they are in some of the oddest places in the country and you need to line up the vendors might be shredder. It might be a dumpster, it might be a donation, it might be an appraiser, there’s a scroll of things and then people can ask for us from this community. We have a checklist and we’re happy to share a kind of move checklist. And you have to get all that lined up if you’re going to go out of town, and if you’re going to arrive on a plane, or a train, or however, you get there on a certain day and try to be most cost-effective and efficient to be there. You want it all lined up, not figuring it out as you’re there. You have to do some audibles but for the most part you want it planned.

THOMASINA: Okay, great. So anyone listening to this podcast is someone who is potentially a client that you can help. It’s not determined by just the geographic location.

SONYA: That’s true. Thank you. 

THOMASINA: So now with the exploration piece, sort of figuring out sorting things as one phase, then you’ve got the inventory to see what’s there, you’ve got the appraisals, figuring out what you’re going to give to loved ones, donate, recycle, sell, throw away, you handle the vendor management, all of that seems like a lot of work. And if people are like my mom, they probably have a heck of a lot more stuff than they realize. Is there kind of a standard range of how much time and engagement takes for you to come in and do all of those pieces top to bottom?

SONYA: Standard depends on the volume. So yes and no, but if we looked at some… I don’t want to pick on your mom.

THOMASINA: I picked on her, please [laughs].

SONYA: I’m not putting her in her grave [laughs], don’t do that. But a project like that is probably three months beginning to end.

THOMASINA: Three months, okay.

SONYA: And some projects come to us, like the 12-room apartment, we only have two weeks. So it’s a full team of multiple people, and do it as fast as has to be done, and then step away. So you can do it in a short amount of time, but the cost is going to be the same. So if you need 100-man days or -women days, you need 100 labor days, whether or not you’re jamming it into three months or you’re jamming it into weeks, that’s how we’re thinking of it as labor in that pie. But some of the variables, appraisals can’t be pulled out. You cannot ask an appraiser to come in on Monday and spit out an appraisal on Friday. That’s a many week process. So you’re gonna have to make alternative plans like put things in storage while they get appraised. In a lot of circumstances where the estate has not been able to be resolved but the real estate transaction has to happen, meaning they need the cash to sell and liquidate the apartment to pay for the taxes and other pieces, they have to get the stuff out in order to make that possible. So then everything needs to be inventory pulled-out, stored, sit, wait for the probate to come through and then they can distribute but you’re touching it twice and that’s more expensive but the value of making the property sell was more valuable. So three months is great, six is better. And projects with a tremendous amount of paper — and by tremendous, I mean over 100 banker boxes, some estates have 600 plus boxes, or small businesses have a lot of paper — when you get into that volume of paper, you should be over the six month six to nine month kind of zone.

THOMASINA: Okay. So obviously, the scope of the project dictates the timeframe, but you can do things as quickly as packing up and getting rid of a 12-room apartment full of stuff. And then being more purposeful and intentional and taking the time, the longer lead you have three to six months, the better. 

SONYA: Also, the more cost-effective it is to not have to pay vendors twice, to not have to pay rush fees, to not have to incur extra, to make choices, and to scope the right solutions because you could vet versus you have to run to the finish. That’s the planning aspect, that’s why I’m in love with this community. Yes, plan. Anyone you guys can touch to get them to plan, please.

THOMASINA: Well, we thank you for sharing this time with us. And I’m sure there are lots of people who are going to be excited to know about your services. If you want to give us a couple of closing remarks and then, end with your website address so that people know exactly how to get in touch with you. 

SONYA: I’m just so grateful to share and to have like-minded people and I hope to creatively collaborate with this community in the future. And I thank you for taking the time for the structure. And I can be found at seriatim.net, and seriatim means in a series, and most people it’s a series of steps to get from chaos to order. And so our logo shows that chaos feeling all the way to kind of order. How you spell Seriatim is S-E-R-I-A-T-I-M-dot-net, seriatim.net. 

THOMASINA: Well, thank you very much. We are so grateful to have had you here, Sonia Weisshappel, the founder and CEO of Seriatim, a professional organizer and inventory manager. Thank you again for joining us, Sonya.

SONYA:  Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, many blessings to you and mom.


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