I recently read an article about Robin Williams’ estate and how the personal property like his suspenders from the “Mork and Mindy” TV show or the Oscar from the movie “Good Will Hunting” will be distributed. Many times it is the assets with little to no value in the marketplace, but with a tremendous emotional value to the family members that end up being fought about. I remember one family fought over the gravy bowl because all of the children had such fond memories of mom’s cooking and that bowl being passed around at every big family dinner. It is not uncommon for me to hear about one family member going to the decedent’s house even before the funeral occurs, and grabbing items way before everyone else.
Although we can never predict what your family will really fight about, we can at least do some preventative measures. Here are some examples of what some of my clients have done:
( 1) Ask! Some clients ask their children what are the things in the house that have sentimental value to them. Then you can see if there are any items that more than one child wants, and you can designate who you want it to go to.
( 2) Sticker System – Some clients ask their children to take colored sticker and put it under any item that they would like. Yes, it’s possible to for the kids to peel off stickers of their siblings but hopefully everyone will play by the rules.
( 3) Card System – Some clients put together a strategy in their estate planning documents of how the personal property will be distributed. They may have a deck of cards, and each person would choose one. They would then just go in order and pick things out one by one until they have narrowed it down to things to put up for sale or to donate.
( 4) Estate Planning Letter – We always encourage clients to prepare a letter that may have some instructions on how best to distribute or sell personal property. This includes a list that is separate from the Will or Living Trust, but is incorporated in such documents to be honored upon your death. This list of who to give what items to can be changed as often as you want, especially since we accumulate and get rid of assets throughout our lifetime. The instructions should also include the details of the assets and how best to sell them. For instance if you have a rare set of books, coins, china, stamps or any other collection, your family may just sell them in a garage sale, or on craigslist for far less than their true value.
In any event, estate planning is not just about the big stuff – your house, your retirement accounts, your savings and your cars. It’s also about the “little” stuff that has far greater sentimental value to your family. The more you plan, hopefully, the less conflict for your family members, and the higher likelihood that they can remain on good terms and continue to see each other during the holidays.