By Zach Anchors
A well-drafted will normally spells out which heirs receive large assets such as homes and lifelong savings. But it's often the smaller, sentimental items - anything from old photographs to antique furniture - that cause the most conflict among families left to divide the remains of a loved one's estate.
These items are often linked with childhoods memories and tend to trigger emotional reactions that stir up strong feelings among family members. What's more, says Julie Hall, an estate dissolution expert and the author of Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents' Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff, family members often use their emotional attachment to an object as a means of justifying their possession of that item.
"A family member's death should bring loved ones together, but too often it's a time when conflicts arise that last for years," says Hall. "The majority of these fights aren't over cash, but over items having sentimental value.
Fortunately, you can prevent many such conflicts by thoughtfully planning and communicating your wishes. Take the following steps to prevent the sentimental items you own from prying your grieving family apart.
Take inventory. You may not realize that some of your possessions hold special value for your loved ones. Make a list of any personal items you own that have been in your family for years or that have a unique history. Start with the china set you've used for holiday meals or a rocking chair that helped you lull your children to sleep. Then ask your heirs which items they would like to own after you pass away. You may discover that they have fond memories of items you've never thought much about.
Appraise. After determining which of your possessions hold sentimental value, have the items appraised so that you know their monetary value. You might learn that an item has a much greater or lesser value than you expected. "Once you learn the value of your heirlooms, it becomes easier to divide your assets equitably," says Hall. "If one sibling is getting more than another, it's probably not fair – and that's going to stir resentment." Consider both financial and sentimental value while dividing your assets. Otherwise, heirs who receive financially generous inheritances may still feel they're not getting their fair share.
Give gifts now. Consider giving heirlooms to family members during your lifetime rather than letting your family divide them up after you're gone. Presenting an heirloom now is a gift you give yourself; you can see the grateful smiles on relatives' faces firsthand. And if questions of fairness crop up, you can explain (in person) why you've doled out items the way you have.
Be open and honest. It can be tempting to give a special, secret gift to one family member with whom you have an especially close relationship. But secret gifts are usually revealed at some point and can become a source of tension. Tell all of your loved ones about your plans to distribute your assets, and don't misinform anyone about an item's value. "If you tell one child something, tell them all," says Hall. "Everyone should be on the same page at the point when they are coping with your death."
Share stories. Items that hold sentimental value are almost always connected to a meaningful story – often one that reveals something about a family's roots. Make sure you pass down the stories of your heirlooms before you pass away. "There are so many people who regret not asking their parents or grandparents about the history of an item before they died," says Hall. "These stories can be just as valuable as the items themselves."
Leave clear directions. Create a document that explains exactly how you want sentimental items to be distributed. Then share the document with your heirs. "You can create this as an addendum to your will," says Hall. "Make several copies and keep them safe." Laws regarding the distribution of personal property vary from state to state, so check with your legal advisor to make sure you create a document with legal authority.
Thinking about your family and your possessions beyond your death can be difficult. But making thorough preparations for that time could be one of the most valuable gifts you leave behind. "Children are often faced with monumental decisions about their parents' possessions," says Hall. "They don't know if they should keep their possessions, sell them, throw them away, or give them to a particular person." By communicating your intentions clearly, you can bring your family members peace of mind when they need it most.
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