How To Divide Possessions Among Heirs

The death of a family member can bring families together, sharing in their grief, but that’s not always the case. For example, the daughter of the deceased may announce that her mom promised her the picture that always hung on the living room wall, but her brother may contest that the picture was promised to him. Both have memories and emotions associated with the picture, so the fight can get acrimonious fast, potentially leading to a split family in which siblings aren’t communicating.

This is a situation where a will would be paramount. The purpose of a well-drafted will is to give clarity to your wishes to make sure this doesn’t happen to your family. Your executor can make sure that splitting up your assets doesn’t split up your family if you follow these best practices:

List the most important or valuable items outside your will.

Your will can get very long if you try to list every possession, family heirloom, and piece of valuable artwork that you want to stay in the family, so create a written statement naming what goes to whom.

  • Talk to your children and other family members first to see who values which items most.
  • The statement can be created before or after the will. From a legal standpoint, it doesn’t have to be witnessed, but if you expect it to be challenged, have it witnessed and dated when it’s created and whenever it’s amended.
  • Obviously, it’s no good if no one knows it’s there: Keep the statement with your will.

You may want to direct in your will that some items be sold. It may make sense to sell items of great value and distribute the proceeds. You can, for example, direct a valuable painting to be auctioned off and the proceeds split equally among your heirs.

Another option is to give everything away during your lifetime. The more you distribute during your life, the less will have to be dealt with after your death.

  • When you make gifts, make sure everyone knows about them so that the person receiving the gift is not accused of stealing after your death.
  • You can make a deed of gift for tangible personal property retaining the right to keep things in your home as long as you live. To make things extra easy for your executor and heirs, tape a note to an item such as furniture or artwork with the name of its new owner. For tax reasons, it may be better not to gift highly appreciated property during your life because the new owner will lose the step-up basis. Check with your estate planning attorney and tax accountant.

Get appraisals. Be guided in your decisions of who should get what by knowing the monetary value of the items you’re giving away in life or death. This will help your executor and heirs. You can stipulate that the asset be sold and the proceeds divided evenly so that the heir who really wants the asset can buy out the others.

Use a lottery. If you don’t do any of the above, your executor can set up a lottery system for distributing tangible assets. Your will or trust can spell out that your executor or trustee will do this and how then put names or numbers in a hat and have beneficiaries draw for the order to choose items.

Bear in mind that when children are supporting their parents in unequal ways, disagreements may surface, causing serious tensions. If one of your children provides most of your care, either make sure that child is compensated in the will or make sure your will is extremely clear to avoid strife. Remember that after your death, you won’t be around to talk your children through any disagreements.

The bottom line, the more clearly you specify who gets what, the less likely it is that strife will ruin the most important thing in your life: your family. Sometimes, your family will go into the process of affirming their commitment to remain connected as a family. This is the time to reconcile and forgive.

Don’t let the task of dividing your assets prevent you from finalizing and signing your estate planning documents. Call Chuck Bendig, to discuss your concerns. We can help you find the best solution for you and your family.

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I’m Chuck Bendig,


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