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Finding something marked "private" after someone's death

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#1 Montro

Posted 21 January 2013 - 06:37 AM

The mother of a very good friend died 4 weeks ago in a motor vehicle accident, so her death was sudden, unexpected and a huge shock.

The task of organising the funeral and going through her mum's belongings fell to my friend as her siblings (2 sisters) were estranged from their mother, and are also estranged from my friend.  My friend hasn't spoken to her sisters for 10 years.  Their father has also passed.

I've been helping my friend sort out her mum's belongings and we came across a cardboard cylinder marked "private" in her mum's handwriting.  It contains sheets of paper (the cylinder is open at both ends so you can see the contents inside.)  The cylinder actually contained my friend's high school certificate, and her name label is still on the front, so we thought the contents must have been her certificate, but as soon as she peeked inside she realised they were something else; just not sure what!

Would you pull the papers out and see what they are?  This may sound like a trivial question, but my friend is torn as to what to do, and she's unable/unwilling to ask her sister's opinion, and I really don't know if she should get the papers out or not.  The cylinder is marked private, but they could be important; we have no idea.

What would you do?

#2 Ferelsmegz

Posted 21 January 2013 - 06:41 AM


#3 epl0822

Posted 21 January 2013 - 06:42 AM

Private could mean anything including legal documents. The person is deceased so I would open it to check what it was.

#4 HRH Countrymel

Posted 21 January 2013 - 06:44 AM

Take it out and read it.

That is what I would do.

I read my mother's diaries after she died, you can't get more private than that.

Yes they could be important - so you need to check them.  

You have been cleaning out her home so you have dealt with all kinds of other 'private' things.. just because that one was actually marked 'private' it really is no different.

#5 miinii

Posted 21 January 2013 - 06:44 AM

tbh i would probably have a look. It could be marked private but the contents may not be what she originally had in it when she marked it "Private".

#6 JustBeige

Posted 21 January 2013 - 06:53 AM

Yes I would.  Your friend is doing this because everyone else in the family has bailed, so she has no choice.  It could be anything - but whatever it is she does need to go through it and make a choice on whether it is to be kept or thrown out or given away.

Did the mum have a will?   If so, then maybe the executor should be opening it.

#7 Mishu

Posted 21 January 2013 - 06:59 AM

I know you are asking from a moral perspective, however from a legal perspective I don't think privacy continues after someone's death?

I would open it and read it. From a practical perspective, unless your friend's mother had a lawyer, there is no-one else to do it. It could be important, as PPs suggested, such as a will. It could end up being of significant sentimental value to your friend. There's no point in ignoring it or pretending it's not there. You found it for a reason.

Re reading your Mum's diaries countrymel. All I can say is you're a brave woman. I wouldn't want to read my mother's. Not that she keeps any, but I'm sure that there are things I rather leave unknown lol. Funny, I keep a journal and I'm not sure how I would feel if DS were to read them. But I'd have no problem if my grandchildren or later generations read them. Can't explain why though.

#8 Kay1

Posted 21 January 2013 - 06:59 AM

Yes I absolutely would.

#9 choccy2

Posted 21 January 2013 - 07:11 AM

yes I would look at it.  
It may be something important and she is already charged with finalising her mother's affairs - I don't see this as any different. Just one more thing to be put to rest.

#10 Berndt TÅ‘st

Posted 21 January 2013 - 07:14 AM

I couldn't possibly stop myself.

#11 Isolabella

Posted 21 January 2013 - 07:16 AM

Yes I would look.

We have things in Private envelopes.... DHs employment  contract comes in one, as does Annual pay reviews.

I suspect we will come across similar things for MIL in the future, but that may be around where she has cash stashed around the house and details of safety deposit box.

#12 ComradeBob

Posted 21 January 2013 - 07:18 AM

Yes, I would open it. There are plenty of things that can be marked "private", that aren't of earthshattering importance, but are more on the mundane side.

And I agree with the PP that privacy stops after death.

#13 raone

Posted 21 January 2013 - 07:23 AM

I would look with the intention of forgetting all about it if i had to.  Like if its about the sister

#14 JRA

Posted 21 January 2013 - 08:35 AM


#15 Therese

Posted 21 January 2013 - 08:37 AM

I would look as well.

#16 qak

Posted 21 January 2013 - 08:39 AM

Don't forget to tell us what's in there!

#17 Guest_Dinah_Harris_*

Posted 21 January 2013 - 08:42 AM

Yes,  I'd look.

#18 LittleRB

Posted 21 January 2013 - 08:42 AM

No question for me - would absolutely look at it.

I have to be honest and say it's because I'm nosey.

But I can see other "legitimate" benefits to looking at it e.g. it may be important paperwork, letters your friend might get a benefit from reading e.t.c.

If your friend is nervous as to what she is going to find, perhaps you could look at the documents first e.g. make sure it's not a birth certificate that says who her *Real* dad is or something like that.

#19 nouseforaname

Posted 21 January 2013 - 08:50 AM

I would look. It could be important. If it was 'top secret'  thing she didn't want anyone finding out about ever then I'm guessing it would have been better hidden or perhaps worthy of destruction lol.

I'm guessing it's important... that's why she kept it. Open it.

Make sure you tell us all what it was  ph34r.gif

#20 EsmeLennox

Posted 21 January 2013 - 08:53 AM

Yes, without question.

#21 emlis22

Posted 21 January 2013 - 08:56 AM

I wouldn't have thought twice about it and it would be open by now.

#22 Rachaelxxx

Posted 21 January 2013 - 09:00 AM

Ohhh for sure, it might be something you need to know and if not I'm sure it's probably just some legal or medical document.

#23 mindy05

Posted 21 January 2013 - 09:21 AM

It may be some legal documents your friend needs to see, and I would be reading them in her case. However, your friend probably also should be prepared for anything. After my GM died, we were going through her things and found police reports from when her first husband beat her and she had to take out a restraining order. This dated back to the early 1950s, and we had no idea that this was why she divorced her first husband. (She was my Dad's stepmother, and never spoke of her first husband.)

#24 opethmum

Posted 21 January 2013 - 09:33 AM

I went through my very good friend belongings and we came across this very issue, luckily we looked at it because it contained legal documents and sworn statements and a whole treasure trove of documents that helped my friend's life partner to gain his full assets after his death. Just as my friend predicted his sick and twisted family came after the assets and tried to contest the will. (This was before same sex inheritance laws were passed)

#25 MissingInAction

Posted 21 January 2013 - 09:39 AM

Look at it, yes.  But be mindful that whatever those contents are; she won't be able to "un-see" them and if she has questions about them that she would've liked to ask, she won't be able to ask them anymore.  So she needs to be prepared for that.  She also needs to be prepared to see something she won't necessarily like... what if she's adopted?  what if it reveals something she didn't know about her mum?  she will not be able to ask any questions at all!  ever.  she needs to be okay with that.

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