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Divide family’s possessions before death

It's the Law

Posted: October 2, 2008 9:01 p.m.
Updated: December 4, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Who should have grandma’s dining room table or diamond ring? How should family photos be distributed?

Dividing up heirlooms can be a touchy subject. If you leave the decision until after you die, your children may end up fighting over possessions. If your will or trust divides up belonging without an explanation as to why one child gets one thing and another child gets something else, your children could end up with hurt feelings.

To avoid these scenarios, plan ahead and talk it over with your children (or other heirs). By bringing them into the conversations, you can make things easier for them later.

These discussions are also a good opportunity to share memories and stories about the heirlooms. You get the opportunity to explain why something may be important to you, and you can find out what items are important to your children.

How to do it
There are several ways to divide family possessions. One option is for you to pick who gets what. If you do this, take into account your children’s interests.

Another option is to ask your children what they want. If there are items that more than one person wants, you can all sit down to discuss a solution.

Alternatively, you can do a round robin, where each child gets a turn picking something. It might help to separate sentimental items from valuable items. You can ask your children to choose items off each list.

A provision in your will or trust can be made to tell the executor/trustee to look for a list which is attached to your estate planning document, identifying certain items of personal property and the person to receive each gift at your death.

The attachment allows you to add gifts at different times by stating for each gift what it is, who is the recipient, then dating and signing the section of the document for each separate gift.

This way, you can add to this list as time goes by instead of having to determine distribution of all of your property at one time. The “fallback” within the document lets your executor/trustee know any remaining personal property not identified on the list is to be equally divided among the beneficiaries you choose.

This approach allows you as the client the ability to take a previous attachment off your document and start all over again without having to see your lawyer to make the change.

As long as the attachment is there with your estate documents, your representative will know what to do. To go further, some clients take pictures of these items to assist all parties to identify the gifts they are referring to in the attachment.

The University of Minnesota Extension Service has developed a number of education resources to help families make more informed decisions about passing along personal belongings. They have created a workbook titled “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate” as a guide to passing on personal possessions.

The Web site is It is made up of nine chapters of information spanning from understanding the sensitivity of transferring personal property, determining what “fair” means, distribution options and consequences and also includes a chapter on managing conflicts.

This Web site is a “Web sampler.” A workbook and DVD are available for purchase.

Gina MacDonald is a lawyer who specializes in estate planning, probate and elder law. Her column represents her own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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