Preventing an Estate Fight

As families gather this holiday season, time will be spent reminiscing about the past. For others, time will be spent planning for the future. This is especially true for those nearing the age of retirement or even putting the last touches on a will, trust, or estate plan.
An often contentious area in managing estates is the division of personal property. Unbeknownst to you, many of the day-to-day objects you use or knick-knacks or odd items you possess may hold very specific and personal value to your loved ones. Furthermore, one of your relatives may be wont to keep some items of real or sentimental value (i.e. jewelry, antiques, art, heirlooms, furniture, clothing, etc.) whereas others may be prone to put it up on eBay or Craigslist to extract its value. Furthermore, you yourself may already have in mind what you want a certain child, grandchild, special friend, relative, or organization to have after you die. However, they may not want it – they may not value it or may not share the same taste. Or, maybe they do not want to be burdened with it, if the item has special care instructions (i.e. your dog or cat).
So, as you gather with your loved ones and think of these events, you may want to strike at the opportunity to discuss what your wishes are for your personal property after you no longer need it. While it may seem off-putting to discuss death around the same time you are singing “Jingle Bells,” really when else is a discussion of death not going to be macabre? Rather, the fact that you are all together provides you with an opportunity to spark a discussion and avoid a fight that you cannot help smooth over after you pass away.
The holiday season is as good as any to provide for some orderly way for your belongings to be divided among your heirs after you’re gone. We have all heard stories about the heirs fighting over Grandma’s piano or china. The damage is often so deep that sisters don’t speak to each other for the rest of their lives!
So, here are some suggestions that can help you prevent this from happening in your family.

  • Make A Special Gifts List: You can make a list of these special gifts and whom you want to have each item. Label each item if possible. Date the list, have it notarized (or witnessed; your attorney can tell you which is appropriate in your state) and keep it with your estate planning documents. If you change your mind, just make a new list and have it notarized. To prevent disagreements about your intentions, be very specific. If your list is long, make a separate list for each person. If your estate is sizeable or if a gift is of substantial value, have your attorney review your list to resolve potential tax issues.
  • Ask What They Want: Ask your children and others if there is something of yours they would like to have. There may be an item that has special meaning to someone that you aren’t even aware of. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that?
  • Make gifts now: Especially if it is something that you no longer need, or if you are concerned there might be a problem later on.
  • Hold a family “sale”: And you can serve as the referee. Gather your kids some weekend or holiday and have them take turns selecting items they want. If one item proves popular, let them bid against each other or make trades. Then write up a list for each person. What doesn’t “sell” to family members can be sold in an estate sale after you die and the proceeds divvied up. (If your family is reluctant to do this, tell them you’ll leave instructions for everything to be sold after you die.)
  • Write a description: Especially for any items that have sentimental value to you or is a family heirloom. How else will they know the difference between a turkey platter belonged to your favorite Aunt Jessie and the one you picked up at a garage sale? For example, I have a toy studebaker radio in my office. It does nothing more than catch AM radio waves at this point in time and it is on a shelf near me as I sit at my desk. To the casual observer, no one would think of this as anything as a knick-knack. And, true, it is. However, it is a knick-knack that was in my grandfather’s office in his car lot. And so it means a lot to me. But do my children know that?

Talking about your wishes for your personal items while you are still alive is a great way to help prevent needless family fighting when you are gone. Remember, the greatest legacy that you can leave is a family that knows you love them and loves one another.