Passing On Personal Property

Senior couple unpacking a cardboard box of personal property_McCreary Law Office

You feel good that your estate plan is all set. It will take care of your home, savings, and investments, making sure that your family will get those valuable estate items fairly and efficiently. Depending on the level of planning, your plan might also protect your legacy from your children’s potential divorces or bankruptcies. So what could go wrong? Plenty, unfortunately, can go wrong when it comes to personal property.

Unless it’s something particularly special or valuable, personal items are typically not included, with specificity, in your will or trust. But who gets those things after you die can still be personally up to you. Spend some time thinking about how you want your possessions to be shared with your family when you’re gone. It will be time well spent.

Understanding Sentiment in Personal Property

We hold a lot of memories in things. The memories, of course, are often about time spent that involved the things. For example, the Fiestaware pitcher that my grandfather poured iced tea out of for every family gathering reminds me of family and of my father. Sometimes the memories are about feeling the safety from family that goes back through our childhood. The clock that hung in my grandparents’ house for as long as I can remember until it hung in my mother’s house brings me comfort when I hear its chime. Now that it’s hanging in my dining room, that comfort I feel continues when I hear it. That same comfort expands when my grandniece hears it each half hour and exclaims with a broad smile, “It’s dinging!”

McCrearyLawOffice_Personal PropertySo too might your family’s memories of you be connected, through your things, in deeply emotional ways. A bowl in which you served breakfast to a now grown-up child may have irreplaceable sentimental meaning. Likewise, a favorite piece of jewelry that your granddaughter has always admired in your jewelry box might be what she wants to wear daily to remember you. Or maybe it’s something like the Aggie ring I wear that has been promised to my niece—something that connects her to me, to her father, and to her grandfather and even great-grandfather as the four of us all have worn an Aggie ring.

Preparing for Sentiment and Money to Collide

Deciding about your personal property involves more than merely sentiment. Sometimes people have items that are monetarily valuable while also sentimental. Deciding how to divide these types of possession among children can be difficult for you and lead to bickering, resentment, and hurt feelings among your family members. I might divide my artwork among my nieces, but that means one would get the original painting by the artist who paints the scenes of the boats in the Keys, that painting that I found hanging in the pricey gallery I happened by on Duval Street in Key West. Another might receive the five-dollar print I bought in Cambodia under the trees near Angkor Wat where the unknown artist quickly drew and colored in pieces to sell to tourists. If each person sells her piece, the values will be greatly disproportionate.

Bequeathing High-Dollar Personal Property

We also have special high-dollar items sometimes. If you don’t plan to allocate that value fairly among family members, these might turn into flashpoints that create lasting disputes. Your heirs and beneficiaries might argue over promises they claim you made, about the actual value of items. Worst case could be if items might disappear from your house between the time of your death and the time your executor begins distribution of your personal property. Money and death can lead to grief and greed, and that can lead to irrational behavior.

Creating a Plan for Personal Property

When trying to avoid the negative aspects that can come about with what happens to your personal property, a few steps can help ease things not only for you in making the choices but also for your family in dealing with your personal property. Here are some suggestions to make that more possible.

Use a Personal Property Memorandum

I almost always reference a personal property memorandum in the wills that I draft. In this scenario, your will instructs your executor to look for this separate writing where you’ve listed personal property and who gets it. In Texas, I provide clients the language to handwrite this memorandum (and to sign and date it) so this memorandum works as a codicil to their wills. (It will work as a holographic codicil.) In Florida, I give a typed form to clients to complete. Either way, a great thing about using such a memorandum is that you can update this as often as you want; just sign and date any update, destroying the prior version. This way too, after you’ve updated your estate plan, you can then take some time to talk to your family about what among your possessions is most important to each family member. You can even attach photos of items to be sure there’s less room for confusion about what you means when you say, “my mother’s earrings.”

Allow Your Executor to Use a Lottery for Dividing Personal Property

In my family, we’ve drawn numbers to take turns choosing items we want from an estate. In each case, we started with number one and worked out way through. After each person was allowed to choose an item, we then reversed direction, letting the last person choose first in the second round, and so on. Once the choosing is completed, the rest can be sold in an estate sale or donated. And if the items selected vary greatly in value, an estate sale expert can appraise each person’s items, counting that value as part of the person’s overall share. This keeps the distribution monetarily equal even when someone chooses the Key West gallery painting and another chooses the Cambodian unknown water color.

Know the Value of Your Personal Property

If you are striving to keep the value provided to each beneficiary equal, and you want to leave specific items to specific people, you should know what your high-dollar items are worth. If you own an item like an Impressionist painting or a vintage diamond ring, get it appraised. Then consider how you might apportion the value so family members will be treated equally. (Of course, this is also important for insurance purposes.) Maybe for your family it might make sense to sell such items and divide the proceeds. Or you can instruct your executor to allow a beneficiary to buy the item from your estate.

Instruct Your Family to Keep Sets Together but to Divide Property According to Type

Another thing you can do is to group your possessions into clusters, to make the gift process more efficient. For example, items that match should be kept together: the dining room furniture; the set of china; a collection of coins. Your executor might also ease the process of picking items in a lottery-style choice by separating out items that are alike, having your beneficiaries choose just from that type of items before moving on to everything together. My father was an avid hunter and had a number of trophy mounts that were important to his children. We put those in their own group to choose from among before moving on to regular household goods. Similarly, Mom was an artist, so we chose from among all of her pottery she’d made first, then her paintings, then everything else.

Communicate with Your Family

Talk to your family about what’s important to each person. Something you might thing is sentimental may mean nothing to someone else. Something you see little value in might be exactly what your child wants to keep to be reminded of you. Perhaps you do this at the next family gathering. Or maybe you take a video and send it to everyone, letting them think about what’s important.

Your will or trust is only one piece of the puzzle. How you leave tangible pieces of family history really matters too. It’s for the same reason that we might treasure a faded rose from a wedding bouquet. So take care in passing along your personal things to your family and friends. Your family and friends will be more likely to remember you with warmth and respect and less likely to bicker and argue during a time they need each other most.

If you need help with your planning needs, I would be happy to help. Please contact McCreary Law Office or call the Jacksonville, FL office at 904-425-9046 or the Houston, TX office at 713-568-8600.

Attorney Jana McCreary

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Houston Estate Planning and Elder Law Attorney Jana R. McCreary has been an attorney for over eighteen years, a career move she made after working for over a decade with adults and children with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Graduatin… Read More

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