Unlike money, personal belongings usually cannot be divided equally after their owner passes away. For this reason, distributing possessions like furniture, jewelry, dishes, silverware, artwork, photographs or clothing is often the most difficult challenge in settling an estate.
It helps if you state in your will, living trust, or in a separate memorandum or list who should receive what. In many states, reference within a will or living trust to such a separate document over what is technically called “tangible personal property” makes the list binding.
The separate memorandum or list can be updated without changing the will or living trust. Indeed, in Michigan, such personal property gift lists can either be in your own handwriting or typed up. It does not need to be witnessed or notarized. It should be signed and dated at the bottom of the list. You can create more than one list, but must be careful not to have lists that conflict with one another.
Often items of little monetary value have great emotional significance. This can make distribution difficult when more than one person feels attached to a particular item. The process can also become the venue for playing out old family insecurities and grievances. Everyone may revert to the relationships they had in childhood.
One my most frustrating cases involved a dispute between several siblings over boxes of their deceased mother’s personal property (that nobody would’ve wanted during her lifetime), the “crowned jewel” of which (in my opinion) was a set of ceramic chickens. These siblings proceeded to spend a great deal of money fighting over the selection of this personal property, to the point where a judge made them sit in a room together and not leave until the issues were resolved.
Many families are able to work out the distribution of personal belongings that have not been earmarked for a particular person. However, if there are even perceived problems about the distribution of personal property, it is advisable to create a tangible personal property gift list and/or provide a method for the beneficiaries to select their share of your personal property.
Here are a few methods:
In many cases, families use a combination of these methods to come up with a fair system of distribution. Sometimes, however, people’s schedules get in the way of everyone meeting in one place to make distributions or the process gets dragged out for other reasons.
The University of Minnesota Extension School has developed useful materials to help families resolve issues around distribution of personal possessions called Who Will Get Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate? which is available both online and in a workbook format. It is a great place to start both for parents planning the distribution of their estate and for executors figuring out what to do after the fact.
For a Consumer Reports article on “How to spare your heirs a battle over your estate,” click here