How To Divide Possessions Among Heirs

It is easy to imagine that the death of a loved one brings families together in grief, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, for example, the daughter of the deceased will announce that her mother had promised her the picture that always hung on the living room wall, but then the son pipes up that the picture was promised to him. Both have memories and emotions associated with the picture, so a disagreement can get acrimonious fast, potentially leading to a family split wherein the siblings are no longer communicating. 

The purpose of a well-drafted will is to give clarity to your wishes. By proactively dictating what your wishes are, you’ll better ensure that this kind of tension doesn’t affect your family. Your executor can make sure that splitting up your stuff doesn’t split up your family if you follow these best practices:

  • List the most important or valuable items as an attachment to your will. Your will could get very long if you try to list all the possessions, family heirlooms, and valuable artwork that you want to stay in the family, so you’ll benefit from creating a written statement naming what goes to whom.
    • Talk to your children and other family members first to see who values which items the most. These conversations will help you plan.
    • The list of your assets can be created before or after you work with an attorney to execute your formal will. From a legal standpoint, this statement doesn’t have to be witnessed, but if you expect it to be challenged, have it witnessed and dated when it’s created and whenever it’s amended.
    • Obviously, it’s no good if no one knows that you have created this list: Keep the statement with your will.
  • You may want to direct in your will that some items be sold. It may make sense to sell items of great value and distribute the proceeds. You can, for example, direct a valuable painting to be auctioned off and the proceeds to be split equally among your heirs.

Additional Considerations and Alternative Options

  • Give away some of your assets during your lifetime. The more you distribute during your life, the less will have to be dealt with after your death.
    • When you make gifts, make sure everyone knows about them so that the person receiving the gift is not accused of stealing after your death.
    • You can make a deed of gift for tangible personal property retaining the right to keep things in your home as long as you live. To make things extra easy for your executor and heirs, tape a note to an item such as furniture or artwork with the name of its new owner. For tax reasons, it may be better not to gift highly appreciated property during your lifetime because the new owner will lose a step-up basis. Check with your estate planning attorney and tax accountant before moving forward with any particular lifetime gift strategy. 
  • Get appraisals. Be guided in your decision of who should get what by an understanding of the monetary value of the items you’re giving away. You can, for example, stipulate that a valuable asset be sold and the proceeds divided evenly. You can also stipulate that an heir who really wants an asset can buy out other beneficiaries entitled to a share of the asset in question.
  • Use a lottery. If you don’t do any of the above, your executor can set up a lottery system for distributing tangible assets. Your will or living trust can spell out that your executor or trustee will preside over the lottery. You can, for example, insist that your heirs put names or numbers in a hat and have beneficiaries draw for their order in choosing items available to be claimed.
  • Bear in mind that when children are supporting their parents in unequal ways, disagreements may surface, causing serious tensions. If one of your children provides most of your care, either make sure that child is compensated in the will or make sure your will is extremely clear about your intentions to better avoid preventable strife. Remember that after your death, you won’t be around to talk your children through any disagreements that may arise.

The more clearly you enumerate who gets what, the less likely it will be that strife will ruin the most important thing in your life: your family.