If your house were on fire and you had to escape with only one item, what would it be? For many people, the answer would be an item that might not be terribly valuable—at least by conventional standards: Mom's rolling pin, Grandpa's dented old pocket watch, the Purple Heart Dad earned in Vietnam. What these items have in common is their sentimental value. Although not worth much on the open market, they are priceless in terms of the people and memories they represent. For this reason, people are as likely to fight over small, sentimental items in a loved one's estate as they are over assets worth much more. If you want to avoid rifts in your own family, you should devote some thought, during estate planning, to passing down tangible personal property that has sentimental value.
Families have different ways of dealing with these issues. As a parent or grandparent, it can be hard to make the decision to leave a particular item to one person, potentially hurting the feelings of others. But it is far worse to assume that your loved ones will "figure it out" when you're gone. One daughter might claim your trusty rolling pin, while the other happily takes the well-seasoned cast iron skillet, both with happy memories of time spent in your kitchen. Or they could fight bitterly, never quite making up. Fortunately, you can take steps to avoid this outcome.
Even if you are not worried about disputes, there may be certain personal items that you want to end up in the hands of specific people. One way to make sure that happens is to itemize those gifts in your will. The problem with that is that over time, you may lose or acquire possessions, and heirs may come into or go out of your life. You don't want to have to pay to update your will every time a new grandchild is born or you get a new piece of jewelry, for instance.
Fortunately, there is a simple and inexpensive alternative: a list of tangible personal property. If your will or trust references that certain possessions are to be distributed in accordance with the terms of a list of tangible personal property, you avoid the expense and effort of re-drafting your estate planning documents. The list should reference your will or trust and should clearly identify the specific items to be bequeathed, as well as the beneficiaries who should receive each item.
Unlike a will or trust, there is no need to have a list of tangible personal property witnessed or notarized, so you can update it as frequently as you need to. You should, however, date each list and destroy any prior lists to prevent disputes over which is current. It is also wise to keep the list with your other estate planning documents (and make your intended personal representative or successor trustee aware of their location).
As noted above, one advantage of using a list of tangible personal property to transfer items with sentimental value is its ease and flexibility, as well as the low cost. Another is relieving your loved ones of the burden of trying to figure out what you would have wanted, and potentially bickering over heirlooms.
Don't underestimate the sense of satisfaction you may get from hand-selecting items that are precious to you and leaving them to your loved ones as a reminder of a bond that you shared.
Don't underestimate the sense of satisfaction you may get from hand-selecting items that are precious to you and leaving them to your loved ones as a reminder of a bond that you shared. If you are inclined, you could leave a letter with these gifts, telling the recipients why you chose that particular item for him or her. Not only would a letter make the gift more meaningful, but it would make even clearer your intention to give that item to that particular person.
And don't feel that you must necessarily keep this process secret until after your death. If you are comfortable doing so, you could ask your loved ones if there is a particular item they would like to have as a remembrance of you. (Of course, if they choose something someone else has already asked for, be sure to tell them you have already promised it to someone, so they will not be disappointed later.) You may be surprised to hear that your granddaughter is more interested in the old apron you always wore in the kitchen than a valuable brooch.
If you are interested in updating your estate plan beyond what you can do with a list of tangible personal property, we invite you to contact our law firm.
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