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One of the many benefits of putting together an estate plan is minimizing potential disputes between your loved ones after you die. By clearly stating your wishes about who inherits your assets, in what amounts, and when your beneficiaries receive their assets, you significantly decrease the likelihood of disagreement between your loved ones.
One important, but often overlooked, part of this process is deciding how your personal property should be distributed. Personal property – which is tangible items you can touch such as your furniture, jewelry, collectibles, guns, art, family photos and other sentimental items – can be a major point of contention. This is a particularly vexing problem for parents, as sibling dynamics can result in significant strife over items of sentimental, but little monetary, value.
Earlier this month, this issue came to mind when one of my clients told me about her family’s grand piano. This beautiful musical instrument has been in her family for several generations. My client is a musician so her siblings understood why their parents left the grand piano to her. However, my client now has three grown sons of her own – all of whom are musicians and all of whom want the piano! My advice to her was to hold a family meeting with the boys to reach a consensus on what happens to the piano when she dies. Although this may be a challenging conversation, it is much better to take on this problem now rather than leaving it to your heirs.
When considering what to do with your personal property, think long and hard about your loved one’s personalities and relationship. For example, I have two daughters who are 9 and 11 years old. Given their current willingness to invest 20 minutes arguing over whose turn it is to set the table, I know that at some point I need to sit down and divvy up certain artwork and sentimental items to avoid future conflict.
There are many ways to approach this issue. For unique items that many loved ones desire, you can draw straws for the item now so the matter is settled for the future. Some of my older clients choose to give away such items during their lifetime which has the dual benefit of resolving the problem and giving them the pleasure of seeing their gifts enjoyed. Other clients elect to include specific procedures for distributing personal property in their estate plans, such as setting the order in which beneficiaries choose items.
Every person and family is different. What makes sense for a family with an only child is likely very different than a family with five children or a couple with no children. The most important thing is to give some thought to the disposition of your personal property with an eye towards minimizing the potential for conflict. And rest assured, we’re here to help you find the best solution for you and your loved ones.