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How to Deal with Sentimental Items When Settling an Estate

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Tips on distributing items of sentimental value in a loved one's estate

The Executor Adviser is an advice column created by Executor.org for Legacy. Executor.org's experts aim to help readers with questions about executorship and provide comprehensive, free online resources to guide executors through this complex process.

There are a lot of complicated and time-consuming things that must be tackled when you’re an executor. One of the hardest is how to distribute the sentimental items in the estate. 

When someone dies, not only are we grieving, we also tend to take a bit of a nostalgic journey to the days when our loved one was alive. The process can be painful and it’s easy to see why beneficiaries can end up fighting over certain items, especially those with sentimental value.

So how can you do your best as executor to avoid the squabbles? At Executor.org, we recommend the following:

Talk to beneficiaries early in the process

Getting beneficiaries together to discuss which items they’d like to have can be very useful. It sometimes works out that you, as executor, are able to distribute most of the items without much overlap in interest. What may seem to you like an item that would be of great sentimental value to all beneficiaries may only be desirable to one. Additionally, some may prefer sentimental items over money from the estate and arrangements can be made that way. You can also do this via individual emails to each beneficiary, asking them to rank items of interest, so you can compare the priorities of each of them and get a sense of whether or not you’re going to have challenges in this issue.

One note about this though: be careful of items that carry both great sentimental value and great economic value. The pearls that grandma wore every day of her married life or the coin collection she spent a lifetime working on maybe valuable on both of these fronts. It is your job as executor to ensure fair distribution of the estate assets so don’t forget to factor this in when dealing with the distribution.

Consider having a family auction

In many situations, multiple beneficiaries may have an interest in a sentimental item. An item “draft” can be a great solution. Prior to giving beneficiaries the chance to pick items, you’ll want to have any assets valued (best to hire a reputable third-party to do this, especially if you are a beneficiary too). Then you can throw all the beneficiaries’ names in a hat and draw names one-by-one, giving each person the chance to pick an item when their name is pulled. The order can be reversed once everyone is chosen, or all names can go back in the hat and be chosen at random again for the next round of selections. Whatever the value of each item selected comes out of that beneficiaries’ share of the estate. 

Communicate

Communication is a big part of the executor role in general and certainly when it comes to this part of the job. Sometimes specific items of sentimental value are given to certain beneficiaries in the will. It is best to let everyone know in advance what items are off the table. You should also communicate the method of selection (for example, the draft idea) in advance. 

Bring in help

If tensions between beneficiaries is rising or already high, you may need to consider getting a disinterested third-party involved. Especially if you are serving as an executor and are a beneficiary yourself (some of the other beneficiaries may feel you are being unfair). Sometimes it helps to bring in the estate attorney because they are an objective party who is looking out for what is best for all beneficiaries. Users from our website have also had good success with FairSplit, a company that specializes in helping executors fairly split assets.

Following these tips above can help simplify the sometimes thorny process of distributing assets, particularly ones of sentimental value. Just be sure to give beneficiaries their say, stay objective and reach out for help when needed.

Have a question about executorship? Get an answer by sending an email to [email protected].


About the Author: Patrick O'Brien is CEO and co-founder of Executor.org, a free, comprehensive online resource that helps executors manage their responsibilities and duties in this complex role. The free tools include a helpful step-by-step interactive guide for executors and invaluable tips on everything from planning a funeral and keeping beneficiaries happy to dealing with grief and managing estate assets.


 

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