In almost every estate, there are priceless treasures. In some situations, they have great monetary value. In others, they have almost no value but hold deep sentimental worth to surviving loved ones. Things like an old doll, a hair brush or an old pan from a family-owned pizzeria can hold great value because of the memories attached to them.
In some cases, a will legally spells out to whom specific items should be given. In many cases, however, this is not the case. Items that heirs find priceless are often not even mentioned in the will. The deceased might have only left handwritten notes. Children’s names may be found on Post It notes stuck to silver serving dishes, or scrawled on the back of artwork, offering non-legally-binding direction on the wishes of the deceased. In many cases, these notes might just add to the confusion because they contradict verbal wishes the deceased might have voiced.
All of this, unfortunately, can lead to bad feelings between beneficiaries when it comes time to divvy up the items in the estate. Below are four tips that can help prevent problems and disagreements before they begin.
Have an honest conversation.
Honest dialogue is almost always a good starting point. This sounds simple enough, but isn’t always easy — particularly because family relationships can be so complex. However, if you can get all relevant beneficiaries together to discuss what items are of the greatest interest, you likely will get farther than you think. You might find that family legacy is a priority to one potential heir, while another has very practical wants or needs. An honest face-to-face discussion can help everyone reach a consensus and compromise, if needed. It is often best to keep beneficiaries’ spouses out of this conversation, as they can have strong opinions. Other family members also might not feel the presence of spouses is appropriate at such a meeting.
Factor in the financial value of items.
While it might seem cold to factor the financial value of items into the equation, it is critical to do so. The executor in this process has a legal duty to be fair to all parties. As an example, let’s say three children are each to receive equal shares of a $300,000 estate. One son wants the deceased’s car, the other son wants no personal items and the daughter wants an antique dining room set. The value of the car and dining room set must be considered a part of the share given to the one son and daughter so that the other son—who did not request any items—would receive his fair share, from a financial standpoint. A reputable appraiser can help set values of items and if you have valuable jewelry or art, consider a specialist to ensure you get an accurate assessment. It’s worth noting that for highly valuable art, antiques, vintage autos, etc., you should consult an accountant for tax advice before engaging an appraiser.
Determine when assets will be distributed.
Do not be in a rush to distribute the deceased’s personal property. As mentioned, you’ll likely want to determine the economic value of items. This will take time. If possible, you may want to unclutter a home prior to marketing it (so might like to get some items out of the house in the near term), but you’ll also want to be sensitive to the fact that furnished homes typically sell best. One valid approach is to determine who gets what assets early in the process but to tell recipients that major home furnishings can’t be removed until the home is sold. The executor will also need to ensure that assets do not need to be sold to cover debts of the estate prior to distributing them. Finally, letting a little time pass will take some of the emotion out of the equation.
The executor should craft a clear plan as to when assets will be distributed and share it with all beneficiaries. Patience will be required for this to be done properly, and for the executor to meet his or her duties.
Determine how assets will be distributed.
If possible, the executor also should communicate the specific method to be used to distribute assets. There is no right or wrong approach — but fairness must drive the process. And all attempts should be made to promote family harmony. After you have made as much progress as you can with family discussions, one simple method to complete the process within the parameters of the will is to do a “draft,” as teams do in sports. Pull names out of a hat to determine order and let people choose one item in order, with the value of that asset being deducted from their share of the estate.
Who gets Mom’s china or Dad’s old workshop tools are questions that can literally tear a family apart. But with honest communication and a sensible approach, beneficiaries are more likely to feel like they were treated fairly during the process.
Patrick O’Brien is the co-founder and CEO of Executor.org, a suite of free, comprehensive online tools that help executors manage their duties and responsibilities. The free tools include an interactive checklist for executors, a data vault to store important information, and invaluable tips on everything from the probate court process to managing estate assets.