Deciding who gets what can break up even the best of family relationships and shatter poor ones. Recently I met with a couple of modest means who said they wanted their possessions split evenly among their three adult sons. I inquired about household furnishings, artwork, collections and jewelry, and how they would divide them. The wife quickly replied, “We don’t have anything that any of them would want.” But on her left hand was a sparkling diamond ring, and I noted that she had three daughter-in-laws and four granddaughters. When I mentioned that they may argue as to who should receive the ring, she expressed that she would indeed like to leave the wedding ring to her oldest granddaughter.
Havoc can happen when families are faced with conflict during an already sad and stressful time. Unfortunately, the court system is sometimes involved in disputes over items that may not have much financial value to a third party, but hold tremendous sentimental value for a family member. To help prevent such strife, I recommend including a memorandum of tangible personal property in a will and/or trust. This memorandum, if signed and dated, is legally binding and states who is to receive each specific item. I’ve found that when a legal memorandum—including one that was handwritten by the deceased—is presented to the beneficiaries, harmony is more often preserved. While you can’t list everything you own, include items of significant financial or sentimental value. (Remaining items can be sold, donated to charity or distributed in shares as evenly as possible.)
You may want to specify in your will or trust whether or not shipping expenses should be paid by your estate. While your son who lives in Virginia may be glad for his sister, a California resident, to have your grand piano, he may not want a portion of his share of the bank account used to move that piano across the country.
Be sure to update your personal property list if you sell, lose, or give away an item, or if a beneficiary dies. Remember to send changes to your estate planning attorney, if the attorney is holding your original will. If you need help with a memorandum of tangible personal property or other estate planning document, feel free to contact me for a confidential consultation.