Q: Who gets Grandma's Rocking Chair?
A: When a loved one passes, they typically leave behind a fair amount of personal possessions such as clothes, jewelry and other possessions. Some of the items are of no particular value to anyone, but certainly, some of them are indeed of great value. Sometimes the item is simply sentimental in nature, sometimes the item is of true economic value.
Planning ahead on how the items of value, whether sentimental or economic, can go a long way to help reduce the potential for arguments and disagreements when the time comes to divide up your property. It is very important that you take the steps necessary to be sure that your wishes are conveyed and that everyone knows that the property is being distributed exactly in the way that you wanted.
When an argument on how to distribute your property amongst family members arises, sometimes the only alternative to settle the dispute is through the probate court. This is not to anyone's advantage for several reasons. First, courts can be unpredictable and the solution that the court orders may not be one that is satisfactory to anyone. Second, fighting these sorts of issues in court is expensive and very time consuming. It is quite likely that the legal bills accumulated in such a fight will far exceed the value of the property that the parties are fighting over. Third, court battles of this nature typically leave family wounds that will last for years – maybe even the rest of the lives of the people involved in the dispute.
These sorts of disputes can, in most instances, be solved in advance through proper planning when you are making your estate plan. Your will or trust can give specific instructions to your executor or trustee on which items will be given to which individuals. By doing so, you have eliminated any of the guesswork and confusion that will occur when family disagrees or is not quite sure how you would have wanted your property distributed.
Another method is to devise a method by which your family will use to determine how your property will be distributed. For example, say you have three children, A, B and C. You leave instructions such that each child writes their name on a slip of paper and puts it into a hat. Then, another person draws one of the slips of paper, followed by each of the others slips of paper. The order in which the names on each slip of paper are drawn from the hat determines the order in which each child has an opportunity to select an item from their loved one's possessions. If there are disagreements, perhaps you provide that each child may make no more than two trades with their siblings if that is desired. Certainly, there are other methods that can be devised to allow for a fair distribution of property. Perhaps a method you used to resolve conflicts amongst your children when they were young will once again be appropriate here – and it just may conjure up wonderful memories from their childhoods making the process just a little more enjoyable, and one that they know was from your heart.
Certainly, you can also give your executor or trustee the power to distribute your property in a manner that they see fair. You can leave specific instructions to help them make their decisions so that they know your feelings and desires. One caution however, in this case it may be best that the person making the distribution decisions is not actually receiving items from the pool being distributed.
Another option is to instruct the executor or trustee to simply sell everything at a fair and reasonable price such as in an estate sale. Then, once everything is sold, simply divide the proceeds of the sales in equal shares amongst the children.
The death of a loved one leaves behind a lot of confusion, emotion, and in many cases, a significant number of tangible items and possessions. Writing a strategy for how the items will be distributed in your estate plan can go a long way towards reducing the stress and potential disputes that may arise when the time comes to distribute your property. Much of what you do in your estate plan today, will go a long way towards making the lives of your loved ones just a little easier down the road.