Passing Cherished Personal Belongings – What Works, What Doesn’t

Passing personal property on to family can be tricky. When drafting an estate plan, an individual can make specific bequests of certain property to beneficiaries. However, if the item is lost or destroyed the gift fails. If the recipient is no longer alive or does not accept the gift, other provisions in the will or trust must deal with this alternative scenario. So drafting language to leave a china set to a grandchild can be more work than the physical act of handing the item to the grandchild.

As an alternative, an individual can maintain a list of personal property with delivery and recipient instructions. The benefit of this list is that it can be changed periodically without spending time and money amending a will or trust. This list can be kept with the other estate planning documents, but it is not enforceable like a will or trust. Rather, a person will be relying on their chosen trustee or executor to carry out their wishes in this list.

And while the drafting suggestions above seem fairly straightforward, they do not account for the family dynamics that inevitably creep up when it comes time to decide “who gets what.” Consider the following stories:

Personal belongings can trigger sensitive memories and feelings

“When Mom died, my sisters and I had already graduated from high school and left home. Several years later, Dad remarried and his new wife moved into ‘our home.’ When Dad died, many of the items that belonged to my parents stayed in the house with my stepmother. Once she died, all of our parents’ belongings — and the memories that went with them — went to my stepmother’s children. We still feel hurt and angry when we see the milk glass candy dish from our family at our stepsister’s house. The dish was given to my parents as a wedding gift. It’s just not fair! Why should she have it?”

People differ over what is a fair process and outcome

“I am so overwhelmingly sad. When Mom died, my three older sisters took it upon themselves to divide up Mom’s dishes and household items. They assumed that, as a guy, I wouldn’t want any of these things. At the time, I didn’t object. I was used to having them boss me around. Now I have two beautiful daughters who will never have a special remembrance from their grandmother. I wish I had something of Mom’s to give my daughters. Who should get to make the rules? What would have happened if I had stood up to them?”

It helps to plan in advance

“When Emma invited her four children to spend a day with her and requested that no grandchildren or spouses come, her children wondered what was up. At the time, their 85-year-old mother was planning to move from her home of 45 years to a nursing home. The children gathered and spent the day going through Emma’s property with her. Emma took an item, talked about where it came from and then the family talked about their memories related to the item. Next they decided who should each have the item. Nine months later when Emma died, the children couldn’t help but appreciate the special day they had shared together with their mother before she died. What a wonderful celebration of her life it had been!”

Keep goals in mind when considering distribution options

“When my grandfather died in late spring, he left a list of what items should go to whom in the family. Rather than disposing of these items immediately after the funeral, our family chose to reconvene at Thanksgiving for what we called ‘The Great Giveaway.’ After a wonderful turkey dinner, Grandpa’s list was read and each person received the items designated for him or her. As they did so, each took time to share their memories of the fun times and special moments they had shared with Grandpa. I will always remember it as a very special day.”

Learn what objects have meaning to you and to others

“I was very surprised when three of my seven adult children said they wanted a 25¢ Christmas tree ornament that had special memories for each of them. It is a carousel-shaped ornament with a red metal fan inside that spins around when placed over the heat of a tree bulb. As the children were growing up, they were fascinated with it. I still have the challenge of deciding which one of the three should receive the decoration. However, without asking, I would never have known that it was special to them.”

These excerpts are from the University of Minnesota’s website for non-titled property. You can check this great resource out here.


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