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Dealing with a loss in the family is already a tough time, but the situation can become worse with disputes over how possessions are allocated. Unfortunately, an emotional situation can escalate further when remaining family members disagree, creating distrust or even severing relationships.

Even though you may hope that your family will be able to come together and make decisions after your passing, it’s best to take steps to make your wishes as clear as possible in your will. This is especially important when it comes to “tangible personal property” like art, jewelry or tools, which can sometimes be harder to agree on than savings and property due to the associated sentimental value.

Whether you’re establishing your own personal affairs, serving as executor or simply a family member or friend involved in the allocation of items after death, here are some tips for avoiding feuds and easing an already difficult situation.

  1. Focus on the most valuable items. It’s not reasonable to list every single possession in your will, so focus on including the most valuable — again, sentimental value often matters most. This list is called a Memorandum, which you should also mention in your will. It’s also easy to update or change this list without having to redo your will. Always ensure that your attorney has the most recent copy of your estate planning documents.
  2. Plan ahead. It’s ok to speak with family members as you put your will together to see who values various possessions most. However, the final decision of what to leave to whom is up to you.
  3. Be clear. Instructions in your estate planning documents will supersede any promises made in person, so be clear what you are leaving to whom. It’s often better to say who gets what to ease tough decision making and alleviate unnecessary tension after you’re gone. Clearly describe each item as well to avoid confusion.
  4. Know your options. Other than leaving possessions behind to family, consider donating them to a charity of your choice or instructing that they be sold and the money divided up among family members or donated elsewhere. You can also choose to leave all your possessions to a single beneficiary. These are often nice options when it’s hard to divide things up evenly.Also, you can give things away ahead of time, leaving less for loved ones to worry about. Just make sure that others know who has what to avoid unfair accusations. Lottery and bidding (with tokens) systems can also work well if fairly executed.
  5. Read the Will and Secure the residence. The executor should read the Will and any Memorandum as soon as possible after a death.  Then the residence should be secured, often by changing the locks.  This is prudent one so that a disgruntled family member does not seize the item and second because, even though items may be specifically designated to someone, if the item is very valuable it may need to be sold to pay estate debts.
  6. Bring in help. If you’re the executor and still struggling to sort through a house full of possessions, there are parties who can help. For example, some companies will clear out the house for a small fee. Most charities will pick things up like furniture for free.
  7. Get appraisals. Possessions can appreciate more than you think over a lifetime. This can have implications when deciding who gets what as well as for tax purposes.
  8. Keep things fair. Besides a lottery and non-monetary bidding, there are other ways to keep property distribution fair. Doing so may fall on the executor who can ensure everyone takes turns picking remaining items (in a fair order) or by giving family colored stickers to indicate who wants what. There may be other solutions like copying photos and videos so that everyone can have a digital version of cherished memories. If necessary, a neutral third party may serve as mediation to get to the underlying cause of any family disputes.

For more information about estate planning, contact me today to set up a time to chat.

Please be advised that Christina M. Hronek is licensed to practice in the State of Ohio only and the information provided in this article is based upon Ohio law. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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