Some of the biggest sibling estate fights take place over the small stuff like the china and furniture or art. A lot of parents put a provision in their will that they want to divide the stuff equally among the children. What a mess that creates! What does equal mean? Remember Everyone Loves Raymond and Raymond and Robert fighting over who got the bigger piece of pie?
I had a case once where one of the kids went around the house putting post- it stickies on the pieces of furniture he wanted on Mom’s death. The problem was that he was putting those stickies on at a family dinner at Mom’s apartment while Mom was still alive!
It is a good idea to have a conversation with your family while you are alive to discuss the division of your personal property. You may think that your daughter Sally really wants that china casserole when she’s never had the heart to tell you she can’t stand it!
Of course, it is not always possible or advisable to list specific gifts of every piece of jewellery or art you own in your will. Sometimes I have clients attach a memorandum of their wishes. But once again, the parents’ view as to what is fair and equitable may not be shared by their children.
I often find it simpler to insert a clause in the will that the personal items are to be divided as the children agree and failing agreement, the disputed items are to be sold and the cash divided in accordance with the provisions of the will. The threat of a sale can get siblings to reach an agreement when they realize that the disputed items will be sold if they fail to agree.
In many cases, disputes arise as to what stuff there is to divide. Accusations are often made that items were discarded or given away. Therefore, an executor needs to make an inventory of what is in the estate before dealing with any of the property.
It is also helpful to make an inventory of your stuff and values while you are still alive.
A recent article I came across by Mitch Lipka refers to free software and apps that you can download, including What You Own, Know Your Stuff and Allstate Digital Locker or purchase such as Home Inventory ($ 3.99 for Android and $ 4.99 for iPhone).
Dividing possessions after a loved one has died can be very difficult. The family is grieving and there are often conflicting feelings of guilt versus desiring a cherished family heirloom so soon after experiencing the loss of a loved one.
However, I have also come across situations where a beneficiary has helped himself or herself to items without consulting his or her siblings. This often leads to an expensive and drawn out legal fight. That’s why having a detailed inventory is essential.
Of course, it is difficult to come up with a method for dividing items that will be totally fair. There are no set legal rules, but it is very helpful if the family can come up with a system for dividing the personal items.
One technique I have seen used is to divide the items into set lots of approximate equal value and have the siblings draw lots as to who will get to pick first. The siblings pick in order and then the order is reversed for the next round of choosing and so on.
It may be helpful to recruit a close family friend to act as a mediator to assist the parties in dividing the items.
Family photographs and videos are always cherished. In almost every estate fight that I have settled at mediation, the sibling who does not have access to the family photos and videos usually requests copies. With the availability of digital transfer services, it is now possible to scan old photographs onto a CD or DVD. Now with everyone using digital cameras, it is much simpler to transfer photos and videos. The cost of transferring old photos can be shared.
It is not always possible to avoid a sibling fight when it comes time to dividing personal items. Here are some resources I have come across that may be helpful.
How to divide possessions after the death of a loved one by Lauren Macy Roberts
Dividing up family heirlooms by Marie Suszynski
The Boomer Burden also by Julie Hall